How small law firms can stay competitive

How small law firms can stay competitive

The pandemic has been tough on us all, but for small law firms, it’s forced many to venture outside their comfort zones and start approaching work differently in order to help their clients during this challenging time.

Over the last 18 months we’ve seen many small law firms expand their service offerings to add greater value, become experts in all new subject areas that reach beyond their expertise, and embrace new technology to get things out the door. They’ve morphed into trusted advisors, consultants, project managers and tech experts to help clients and customers get by.

And this change has had a positive impact on their bottom line. According to the LexisNexis Bellwether 2021 report, around three quarters of responding firms said their revenues and profits were level with or higher than their projections for 2020-21, and 31% of firms said they were able to outperform their revenue expectations. Market confidence is also higher than pre-pandemic levels, with 93% of respondents being confident in their firm’s future.

However, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the legal sector is – and will continue to be – in a period of widespread disruption. Technology is evolving, customer expectations are changing and the competition is brewing.

Small law firms have just weathered the Covid-19 storm and come out largely unscathed, but the next phase in the evolution of legal services will perhaps be less kind.

Client expectations are evolving – and so must you

If you were to buy something online, would you be satisfied with the same consumer journey that you would have five years ago? Without the personalised customer journey, and next-day delivery, and real-time updates?

Of course you wouldn’t, because our expectations are evolving at an unparalleled rate thanks to the continued introduction and adoption of new technology.

This change in expectations isn’t limited to e-commerce – it’s infiltrating all aspects of everyone’s day-to-day lives. For instance, when you buy some new software, you expect dashboards that operate in real-time, or portals that give you status updates on your projects, or chatbots that enable you to ask questions and get responses in seconds.

The same is happening in the legal world. In the last 12 months, over half (55%) of SRA-regulated law firms (large and small, client and customer facing) improved or increased their use of existing technology while a third (35%) introduced entirely new technology, according to a new study titled Technology and Innovation in Legal Services by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the University of Oxford. Interestingly, a third of law firms (37%) are applying advanced technology such as automated documents, interactive websites and artificial intelligence (AI) to the legal profession, with the most common new technology in the pipeline at law firms being online portals for matter status updates, interactive websites to generate legal documents and chatbots or virtual assistants.

It’s easy for smaller law firms to brush these changes off as being a large law trend – but the trickle-down effect this will have on small law will be incremental.

The legal sector is experiencing huge disruption

On a superficial level, it’s technology that’s causing widespread disruption on the legal profession – but beyond the surface, it’s more to do with innovation than anything else.

We can see this happening by looking at the growth of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) and the legal services offered by the Big Four accountancy firms.

The Big Four tend to go for lower-value, more automated work, which isn’t something that would appeal to a large law firm – but their approach is where traditional firms could learn a thing or two.

Instead of thinking like lawyers, these firms are applying their digital expertise and business acumen to the legal sector, and integrated solutions have taken on a huge role.

“Our strategy is very much rooted in the needs of the client to be offered solutions and not just advice,” says Emily Foges, Lead Partner for Legal Managed Services at Deloitte.

“The vision for Deloitte Legal has always been that you bring together high-quality legal advice with legal management consulting, legal managed services and legal technology. This way you can provide a complete end-to-end service to the client and achieve the outcomes they are looking for, not just give them advice on those outcomes.”

Report: Are the Big Four reshaping the future of legal services? 

How small law firms can stay competitive

Now is the time for small law firms to take their businesses to the next level by investing in a technology roadmap that enables them to deliver a superior level of service to clients or customers.

Think carefully about your practice area specialism or niche and how you can add more value to clients. What do they need more of from you, and how can technology help support that journey?

And it’s not all about new tech. There are other ways to develop new services that do not necessarily require new technology, such as combining legal and non-legal services into one to create integrated solutions. This could be anything from legal project management services to risk advisory services.

To steal a chapter from the Big Four’s book, it’s about constantly considering your clients’ needs and catering your services towards them, rather than introducing new technology for the sake of it.

Now is the time for small law firms to take ownership of a specialism or niche by becoming an expert in everything and anything that falls under its umbrella – this will enable your firm to remain competitive in the years to come. 

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About the author:
Dylan is the Content Lead at LexisNexis UK. Prior to writing about law, he covered topics including business, technology, retail, talent management and advertising.