In his book, Transforming the Law, Richard Susskind highlights how in the past, lawyers used to advise on general business matters, whereas they have increasingly assumed a more restricted role, and have tended not to stray from the purely legal. He contrasts accountants who have greatly broadened their scope of services, such that auditing and accounting is not just “one of a large number of business lines offered by these large professional firms.
Susskind’s observation is spot on. He made these comments many years ago, and yet the trend towards specialisation and a purely legal focus by the legal profession has increased if anything since then. Susskind’s observations are even truer today. You just have to look at a typical networking group like BNI, which has a policy of one member per profession to realise that lawyers are pigeon holing themselves more and more. In the BNI group I was in, there were several lawyers – an employment lawyer, a shipping lawyer, and myself an intellectual property lawyer. What’s more, that particular BNI group were seeking more lawyers, such as specialists in probate, conveyancing and family law. Yet there was just the one accountant who spoke about a large number of subjects including tax, and business growth.
Arrival of ABS
Perhaps the arrival of the ABS structure will mark a change. Certainly the chairman of the Legal Services Board discussing the ABS structure, explains why it is suitable for innovation. According to David Edmonds, we are now seeing “diversity and innovation in the provision of legal services, the like of which was unthinkable even three years ago”. “It shows us a glimpse at the future of what legal services provision will be,” he said in a speech to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum last month. “[ABS] is a strong spur to find cost-effective and innovative ways of working. Change, diversity and innovation will happen.”
While, many large City law firms have yet to become ABSs, they are increasingly tending to offer wider services than just law through separate businesses. A research carried out for Allen & Overy confirms that overall demand for non-traditional legal services is expected to rise steeply over the next five years. For example, Kemp Little offers support to businesses in the development of their online and digital commerce activities through its consultancy division. And Bird & Bird provide the full range of advice on Software and Services matters as well as on the strategic and operational aspects of a client’s business. And following Axiom’s success in offering project lawyers to in house departments, there have been a number of similar initiatives such as Lawyers on Demand, from Berwin Leighton Paisner and Eversheds Agile.
When the ABS was first being introduced, I was thinking about how we would broaden our own services. For example, some related areas of activity might be branding, and web design. However, I rejected this possibility as it didn’t seem suitable territory for lawyers to veer towards. For a law firm to enter the branding field seemed misguided because naming is just an aspect of branding. Most of the other skills required involve creative design, marketing, communications and the like which lawyers are not necessarily naturally suited to offering.
The fact is the legal industry is increasingly competitive and over lawyered, and it does make sense to look to providing wider services. The increased competition creates opportunities for innovation in pricing service offerings according to Byrne.
However, what is clear is that the choice of wider services needs to be carefully considered to maximise on the unique perspective you can bring to bear in a non law business. Many of the areas these larger firms are moving into, such as IT consultancy, and recruitment are already fiercely competitive.
Possibly we, as an IP firm, would do better to focus on commercialisation services for inventors, or IP valuation services, or business advice on the intersection between IP/IT and business. I strongly believe that we should not leave the supporting of businesses to start up and grow to accountants simply because they understand numbers. There is a lot more to business than numbers. Lawyers understand a host of commercial issues which positions them to help SMEs in ways where their knowledge adds real value.
If you are a lawyer looking to support your clients more widely than with legal issues, the important thing to ask yourself is how you can add value to your clients. For lawyers who have founded a business successfully, it’s likely they will have good business skills to supplement their commercial law ones, so that business advice, is an obvious area to explore as a separate business offering. Similarly, training services is another possibility law firms might consider.
If you are a lawyer interested in this topic, then I’d be happy to engage in discussions with you. Just leave a comment below or contact me by phone or email.