Moving from 2015 to 2016—the changing priorities of commercial lawyers and their clients

2015 was the year of Rugby World Cup disappointment, election surprise and Tour de France glory.

It was also no doubt a year of surprise, glory and disappointment (for some) in the commercial world. The Lexis commercial team have been reflecting on the key developments and challenges in 2015 and thinking about what 2016 may bring for commercial lawyers. We recently interviewed Craig Chaplin, partner at DWF, and this is what he thought:

What is your take on the priorities of commercial lawyers in 2015?

The priorities of commercial lawyers in 2015 have been on keeping the same quality of service and quality output at a sensible cost. Clients want lawyers who understand their business and sector working closely with them. They don’t want a legal answer; they want a business orientated solution. In short we are now expected to get off the fence and those firms who don’t are being left behind.

How have these priorities changed over the past 12 months?

Prior to 2015 the feeling was that we were all still recovering from the recession and, as such, businesses were scaling up again (along with their legal teams). Now that in-house teams are ‘right-sized’ they are looking for improved bespoke support and process efficiencies that improve the client experience.

What legal developments have had the biggest impact on your practice in 2015?

The consumer rights legislation has had the biggest impact on our large retail client base. The changes have been extensive and lots of training sessions have been provided as a result. Many clients have started to be increasingly worried about data protection and security breaches and we have supported them in understanding both areas better through our industry experts. Towards the end of 2015, we pushed out some advice on the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (which many clients hadn’t heard of).

How have these affected your ongoing cases and working life? How have you dealt with these on a practical level?

We have set up a crisis response service for data security breaches. This provides clients with twenty-four-seven cover on these issues. We have also created a ‘Respond’ app.

How has your function developed in 2015? Has this been a good year for commercial lawyers?

This has been a year of consolidation for DWF’s commercial team. We have been involved in some interesting and challenging projects. Commercial lawyers still have to work hard for their fees, but commercial can be an amazing bridgehead into other work. We have won panel appointments on the back of our commercial offering and have cross-sold into many other practice groups. We often act as the in-house lawyer on the outside of the company. We have complemented our ‘traditional’ team of employees with specialist consultants to complement our offering (senior in-house secondees and Groceries Supply Code of Practice specialists through DWF Resource). We are also looking to our paralegals in the legal service centre to process commoditised instructions (once we have agreed a solution with the client).

How has the profile of your clients developed?

Our client profile has matured significantly over the last 18 months with more and more annuity clients turning to DWF for capacity overflow, specialist support and major projects. They are also looking to us for a process-managed approach to more commoditised work. We are now at the level where we can provide all of these with cost certainty.

What are your predictions for 2016?

Clients will be increasingly agile in terms of the support they need from their panel firms. Clients will migrate increasingly towards people and service solutions rather than brands.

How is 2016 shaping up in terms of important cases and legislative developments?

2016 is the year of data protection and data privacy. It’s the year where some clients will look strategically at nothing else. Data protection features highly on the risk register of most general counsels in the country. If it doesn’t it should.

How will these developments affect your priorities and working life?

We have spent a lot of time over the last 18 months training up a team to cope with the anticipated increase in data protection work, so we have already prioritised this. Clients will require a firm steer in terms of what they should be doing on a legal and practical level, and we are now well placed to provide some real actionable advice.

What would you like to see in 2016?

In 2016, I would like to see clients playing their own role in process efficiencies by providing clear and comprehensive instructions, acting within timescales and recognising the effort that goes into a piece of work

How might the expected developments in 2016 affect your sector?

The technologies, media and telecommunications sector will remain disruptive and we will see a continued appetite for deals and collaborative efforts. Retail will continue to be a tough environment so we will again have to do more for less—we are getting quite good at that now.

Some insightful observations there. Do let us have your thoughts below, it would be great to hear them.

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