Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It’s the end of the professions as we know them …

View blog It’s the end of the professions as we know them … by Mathhew Burgess

The Legal Forecast is an innovative community that aims to advance legal practice through technology and innovation. It is a not–for–profit run by early–career professionals who are passionate about disruptive thinking and access to justice.

An interview I gave to The Legal Forecast is below, addressing a number of key issues facing lawyers and the professions more generally.

What is your advice for law students who aspire to work in a virtual law firm like yours? How can they best equip themselves with the skills necessary for the job?

The skills to work in a virtual law firm are arguably no different to any other work environment, however, our experience is that they are brought into more sharp focus, more quickly than what might otherwise be the case.

Our experience has been that those that thrive tend to:
  1. enjoy work as a critical component of achieving flow (as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); 
  2. understand that purposeful work is a critical aspect of achieving flow; 
  3. embrace the concept that work-life integration, rather than work-life balance or work-life siloing is the key goal – this seems to be easiest for those that have significant, non-negotiable, other life responsibilities (eg children or parents they are responsible for caring for); 
  4. embrace the concept of making choices in each moment that lead to positive habits. Invariably, this involves choosing to do what must be done, as opposed to what is invariably ‘easier’ from moment to moment. 
What is the biggest challenge facing the legal industry?

Without wanting to be seen to be avoiding the question, my sense of things is that the biggest challenge facing the legal industry is the number of significant challenges arriving almost simultaneously and creating what some might argue is a ‘perfect storm’.

In no particular order, the key challenges are extremely well-known, and while each of them in isolation is a serious issue, the combination of them is arguably unprecedented, namely:
  1. The first time in the modern history of law firms that it is a sustained buyer’s market. 
  2. The pace of technology change outside the industry has for some time now been significantly faster than the pace inside the industry. The number of other adjacent industries where the incumbents have seen their protected position evaporate in a very short period of time means that it is difficult to build a coherent argument that the legal industry will not face a similar outcome in the short term. 
  3. The steadfast refusal of incumbent firms to take any serious steps to adopt a new business model is almost comical for those outside the industry. Any firm that tracks time in any manner (other than the lag time between receipt of instructions and delivery of a usable solution to a client), ultimately, views all aspects of their organisation through a lens of chargeable units. While the industry continues to debate the issue ad nauseam, the firms that are growing exponentially left timesheets behind some years ago. 
  4. There is then a myriad of other related impacts such as offshoring, AI, aggressive entry into the market by accounting firms and online providers, freelancing models, blockchain, augmented reality, big data and growing in-house teams. 
Ultimately the Bill Gates quote is critical – ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.’

How would you describe the difference between technological disruptions and innovative disruptions to the legal industry?

Certainly, in other industries, the technology disruptions have only ever been an enabler to the more innovative business models.

In other words, it is the application of the technology that drives the truly sustainable changes, not the underlying technology itself.

There are countless examples of this. The one that is arguably the most stark and easiest to understand is that Kodak had the technology for digital photography over 30 years before Instagram was created – the technology was not new; the application of it was.

Do you envisage a change to the structure of the legal market; that is a move away from the traditional boutique, mid-tier and top-tier categorisation of law firms?

There are numerous extremely insightful thinkers that have answered this question in great detail. For example, see the work of Richard and Daniel Susskind, Chrissie Lightfoot, Jordan Furlong, George Beaton and Imme Kaschner.

My personal view is that at least in the short term, the firms that will succeed are those that do not fail the ‘Stealer’s Wheel’ axiom – i.e. they are not ‘stuck in the middle’, see – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DohRa9lsx0Q

In other words, it is the firms that are extremely nimble (for example, many firms, of which ours is one, have business plans that last no longer than a maximum of 90 days) or exceptionally large firms that essentially ‘own’ the client relationship (the big 4 accounting firms are a good example) should both have sustainable businesses (although for differing reasons).

Firms that are not extremely nimble or absolutely in the very top tier (as defined by buyers, not a firm’s marketing team) are likely to struggle.

You have stated that the ‘disruptive business model requires funding, resource allocation and working environments that are significantly different from those of the traditional firm’. Do you think we will see the larger firms with more funding creating disruptive business models whilst smaller firms struggle with a lack of resources?

Perhaps, counterintuitively, my personal experience has been that access to funding is one of the single biggest impediments to true disruption.

As has been profiled on many occasions previously, Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption (i.e. the innovators, or perhaps more accurately incumbents, dilemma) is largely based on the concept that incumbents with adequate resources find it impossible to compete with disruptive firms with inadequate resources, because the disruptive firms simply do not play by the same set of rules.

Some large firms in other industries have been able to beat this challenge through a variety of techniques (Apple and Cisco are 2 high profile examples), however all of those techniques require a way of thinking that is (in Christensen’s view) almost impossible for incumbent firms to embrace.

The theories here however arguably are not particularly new – essentially, they are an iteration on Mark Twain’s quote ‘The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him.’

View Legal is completely virtual and all team members enjoy flexibility around their work arrangements. How important do you think flexibility is to the delivery of legal services?

For us, flexibility is a necessary, although of itself not sufficient, requirement.

While there is obviously a myriad of very important interrelated concepts, we generally refer to the ‘3 Fs’, being flexibility, fun and flow. Unless team members are regularly accessing each of the 3 Fs, then our ability to deliver outstanding solutions for customers is going to be tenuous.

What is a quote you often live by?

Yes – too many to list out here (indeed, every week, I publish at least one quote on Twitter, see – https://twitter.com/matthewwburgess?lang=en). Two of my books are also focused around key quotes, namely The Dream Enabler Reference Guide (see – https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Enabler-Reference-Guide-ebook/dp/B01BHOAJX0/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8) which is in essence the original business plan for View Legal, and ‘Laws for Life’ – the link here takes you to a free download for this book – https://viewlegal.com.au/laws-for-life/, the password is – laws4life, (please delete any pre-populated password).
This said, I was reminded recently of the quote that I put in the yearbook on graduating high school, which arguably remains relevant, from Friedrich Nietzsche, namely ‘Without great suffering, there can be no great excellence.’ In other words, if disruptive innovation was easy everyone would be doing it.

When you think of the word ‘successful’, who is the first person who comes to mind? Why?

This question is similar to the quote question – extremely difficult to answer.

In saying this, the first person I thought of was my wife Dyan. Whenever I think I may have too much going on, I never have to look very far to realise that I have it very easy. She successfully combines her own business, running our personal investment partnership, raising our 4 children (aged 7 to 13) and mentoring me.