At the Lawyer Business Leadership Summit Bas Boris Visser from Clifford Chance warned that law firms need to innovate or die. He made a number of excellent points but his argument had one fatal flaw, encapsulated in this quote:
"Clients will distinguish between the bespoke or better quality work and the work that is more of a commodity."
Unfortunately he fell into the usual trap of talking about legal services in the context of quality vs. commodity, volume vs. value, high-end vs. low-end. If you look hard enough you can almost catch the faint whiff of class debates about U vs. non-U.
If the legal industry is really going to progress and embrace innovation we need to stop having this sort of conversation.
Yes, different types of work sit at different points on the scale from more bespoke to more systemised. But every piece of work involves quality (if anyone can actually explain what quality means). There is value to the client in every piece of work that a law firm does for them.
Take defendant personal injury work, for example, which is the oft cited example of firms getting out of supposedly low value work (read it's really picky and to the sort of thing clever lawyers like us should be doing).
There's massive value in personal injury work. Firms can make a huge profit if they're willing to do the work in the right way, using the right mix of people, technology, systems and processes - exactly the innovation that Bas Boris Visser calls for in fact.
In his speech about innovation he mainly focuses on service delivery. But in this context what exactly does innovation mean? Real innovation is about taking something that was bespoke and finding ways of constantly doing it more quickly, more efficiently and at a lower cost.
The irony is that, if firms really innovate, they will turn the supposedly high value, high quality work that they want into the low value, commodity work at which they sneer.
Look at Ford (who are pretty successful and have a history of innovation). Each year they expect their suppliers to reduce their costs. They argue that with another year's experience of doing the same thing, they should be able to do it better, more quickly, more efficiently and more cost effectively than they used to.
So why should law firms continue to charge the same for something they've one so many times before? There's nothing smart about that. Taking something that's difficult and complex and making it easier and less complicated? Now that's really clever...
Visser argued that the majority of law firms try to position themselves as bespoke, but that a large percentage of their work is still commoditised. This means it is increasingly difficult for firms to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Clients will distinguish between the bespoke or better quality work, and the work that is more of a commodity. So how can lawyers decide what part of their work is more of a commodity?” he asked.