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Scenario planning is a term often heard in corporate strategy departments, but rarely echoes around the boardrooms of UK law firms. It is, in essence, a strategic planning tool to help organisations manage uncertainty, and if there is one profession that is definitely facing uncertainty now, it’s the UK legal services market.
With the unprecedented harsh economic conditions showing no immediate signs of easing, law firms, rocked by the last five hard years with minimal or negative growth, are often shifting into survival mode. Having taken the short term actions to cut costs, management are often looking at the next six months and asking very tactical, pragmatic, short term questions about finance and cash flow, what are the merger possibilities, how can they retain their big billers and how do they manage partner expectations.
Against this backdrop, suggesting that lawyers look ahead to 2025, as the Law Society has done, may seem indulgent in the extreme. Yet if we take a step back, many of the challenges in the current environment have their roots outside the current financial climate. It is too simplistic to say that the increasing competition comes simply from a lack of demand for legal services. Rather changes in the supply side of legal services are driving much of the competitive intensity which is proving so difficult for law firms. Whether it’s the emergence of more aggressive competition from overseas law firms or new market entrants in the post-Legal Services Act world, the UK legal market is changing before our very eyes. New technology based offerings such as Legal Zoom or Rocket Lawyer seem to appear every week, and while the initial hype around legal process outsourcing may have died down, law firms and corporate legal departments continue to quietly move work to offshore and nearshore locations.
These are not changes that have simply sprung up in response to a difficult economy. This is fundamental structural change of the UK legal services market. It is the biggest change in a generation, and law firms need a thoughtful way of navigating through.
While there are many schools of strategic planning, and it can certainly be argued that a bureaucratic, dogmatic business planning exercise every five years is not what is required in such a fast moving environment, I strongly believe that firms will benefit from a competitive strategy. Central to this is a vision of the future, and this is where scenario planning can really help. Looking into the future and envisioning a range of possible ways in which the market will develop will help lawyers make better decisions about their strategy, and the strategy in turn helps them make better decisions about how to allocate their resources and respond to threats and opportunities in the present.
Business strategy is not magic, and many, many lawyers have all the intellectual, creative and analytical skills needed to excel at this. The challenge for them is often to extricate themselves from the day-to-day management of the firm and their teams, to be free of the tyranny of the timesheet, and to spend some quality time where it really matters – creating the future of their firm.
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