What the legal sector tells us about the opportunities & threats of digital

Paul Boag

Digital offers amazing opportunities. But, it also brings with it significant dangers. Just look at digital’s potential impact on the legal sector.

I am amazed just how profound an impact the digital revolution has had on our world. It’s so easy to take it for granted, but not a single sector has escaped its reach.

Headscape is doing a lot of work with the legal sector. Large law firms such as Dickstein Shapiro or Venable appear invulnerable. These are organisations working within a well established sector. A sector known for its conservatism. If anybody can escape the repecutions of the digital revolution, surely it is the legal sector.

But even here the landscape is changing and law firms are having to adapt. They are beginning to realise that bolting a digital function onto marketing is not enough.

Digital offers them significant opportunities, but also presents huge threats. There are so many changes they need to adapt to, but I want to take a moment to focus on just three. By looking at these three, we will see trends faced not just by the legal sectors, but also those of us in other sectors too.

The first is a shift in how organisations select their law firm.

The best of the legal sector, not just the nearest

As with any other sector, the web has given clients in the legal sector unprecedented choice. Once there was word of mouth recommendations within a personal network. Now clients have the power of the web to help find the best law firm for them.

This gives them far greater reach. They can now track down lawyers who specialise in their specific area, even if that person is on the other side of the world.

As in all sectors, reach doesn’t just give them the choice of the best, but also the power to negotiate. Where once they might have been aware of only one or two specialists, now they have the ability to find many more. That gives them the power.

Systems for managing clients are important and the increased reach of clients is changing the sector. But this does not change the importance of word of mouth recommendation. Networking is the life blood of how most law firms win work and it will continue to be so. But now networking is going digital.

Like everywhere else, networking is going digital in the legal sector

The legal sector wins work through the lead attorneys. They do so either because of their reputation in a certain field or via a relationship they have.

In the past these networks of relationships were nurtured in restaurants and on the golf course. Reputation was promoted through speaking at conferences and appearing in the media. Both relationships and reputation took years to nurture.

But the world is changing and that brings opportunities and threats. A small but growing number of attorneys are nurturing relationships through LinkedIn. They are building reputation through online publishing. This new breed are able to reach a far larger audience, becoming seen as thought leaders in their particular field.

The benefits of networking and reputation building online are obvious. But there are two barriers to wider adoption. First, most attorneys are not digital natives. For them this kind of engagement is outside their comfort zone. Second, these are busy people who have limited time for online activity.

Often the second barrier is an excuse. These people are busy, but they make time for traditional networking and reputation building. The real problem is a combination of fear and not understanding the value.

That said, attorneys do need to bill a certain number of chargeable hours. This puts them under enormous pressure. If attorney’s are expected to bring in work too, the number of billable hours will need adjusting and time set aside for business development.

Another issue is that they see digital as marketings ‘problem’. Like in many in other sectors, attorneys do not see digital as part of their job. Unfortunately in the new reality, everybody needs to be engaging with digital. After all, no marketing person is going to be knowledgable enough to write on subjects like biotech law!

Shifting perceptions is not easy. But a good starting point is to take the fear and complexity out of building an online brand. The existing generation of attorneys are not going to setup Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook. They also do not see the benefit in actively managing them. They are also not going to start writing blog posts just because marketing suggests its a good idea.

Law firms need to start building systems that ease attorneys into the digital world. A simple dashboard that shows them news stories relating to their area of expertise. A dashboard that allow them to easily share these stories online.

The chances are attorneys will start using the service just to read the news, but if the interface is easy enough they will share too. Overtime they might start commenting on the stories or even posting their own updates through the system. Eventually, when they want to share more in-depth comments, they might use the system to post to a blog instead.

My point here is that we need to accept that we cannot force colleagues to engage with digital, whatever your sector. We need to lure them online. That means offering them something of real value and making the move online as painless as possible. Giving them a training course on social media is not enough. They need tools that make the transition easier.

Well designed digital tools can also significantly aid efficiency.

Digital offers law firms a competitive advantage in efficiency

Like any business, the legal sector is quick to invest in targeting prospective customers online. They understand that this can lead to increased profits. What they are less willing to do is spend money on internal systems such as their intranet, CRM, or document management system.

Instead they buy some off the shelf piece of technology and expect everybody in the organisation to adapt to it. Often this software is not compatible with the way people work. The result is that employees either ignore it or battle to make it work in a way it was not designed for.

In the legal sector document management is a great example of this. Law firms accumulate huge amounts of documentation relating to cases. This documentation is not just of use on the current case, but has potential value for future cases too. Effective management of this information has the potential to make the firm more efficient. This provides a real competitive advantage.

Organisations need to realise that just using document management software ‘out of the box’ is not going to do the job. They need to customise this software to match the organisations workflow. They need to remove unnecessary functionality that will just cause confusion.

In short these backend systems need the same attention to interface design as does a customer facing website.

Things are changing

My point is a simple one. Digital is not just a marketing tool for legal firms. It is something that is beginning to redefine the entire business. It is changing the marketplace and redefining how people work. And it is not just happening in the legal sector, it is happening in your sector too.