Client Demands Driving Change in Legal Profession: 8 Ways Firms Can Keep Up

New legal research confirms that law firms need to refine and bolster client services, including case strategy and fee arrangements, if they are to remain competitive. Robert Half Legal’s annual Future Law Office research program examines how firms and corporate legal departments are reacting to current trends in the legal profession. Here are eight ways law firms can expand their business, cement client relationships and stay ahead of the competition.

1. Follow the corporate world’s lead. Law firms are taking best practices from the corporate and finance worlds and adapting them to meet client needs. Paul Farnsworth , the immediate past president of the Association of Legal Administrators and the executive director of Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP , who was interviewed for the research program, notes that “larger corporate clients, in particular, are demanding legal services for less cost, and essentially, are requiring law firms to work with more of a business mindset than ever before.”

2. Narrow the focus. To better serve clients and gain a competitive advantage, law firms are narrowing the scope of their work by forming specialized teams directed at specific industries, as opposed to just practice areas. Firms also are deploying client-facing teams composed of partners, associates and paralegals, to create deeper partnerships.

3. Flex the fees. While billable hours haven’t disappeared, clients are seeking greater control over their legal budgets, and the result is an increasing popularity of flat fees, fixed monthly fees and outcome-based bonuses. The ability to negotiate rates and choose alternate billing methods often translates into more value and flexibility for the client. Legal professionals often benefit as well since flexible fee arrangements can relieve the pressure of billable hours, a top stressor of working in a law firm.

4. “Virtualize” legal services. Widespread availability of mobile applications and cloud computing is enabling law firms to deliver legal services more effectively and efficiently than before. This has opened the door to cloud-based law practices where legal services are delivered to clients virtually, without the need for brick-and-mortar establishments. Remote and mobile legal work can be efficient and cost-effective, delivering more value and choices to clients.

5. Create new non-partner-track positions. Firms are experimenting with new roles and positions to offer clients lower legal billing rates and address associates’ requests for work-life balance. These non-partner-track options include “career associates,” “practice group attorneys” and “department attorneys.” While these lawyers are part of a firm’s practice group and perform associate-level work, they do not have staff management and business development responsibilities. Therefore, they bill at lower rates and receive lower salaries than traditional associates who are on the partner track.

6. Allocate work to the right level. Many law firms are restructuring legal support teams to decrease costs while maintaining or even improving support levels. These new approaches to legal support staffing include deploying teams of legal secretaries to work with groups of lawyers rather than assigning one secretary to support several attorneys and creating hybrid or blended paralegal/legal secretary roles.

7. Plan for succession. A critical area of focus for the long-term success of a law firm is proactive succession planning. It’s not simply a matter of grooming a replacement for a retiring partner but making a smooth transition to the firm’s new leaders, including the transfer of clientele and legal work.

8. Get on the move. Today’s workforce is in motion -- and so are law firm clients. Law firms should consider offering remote work arrangements and telecommuting options not only to meet staff needs for a better work-life balance, but also with client service in mind. As Paul Farnsworth observes, “Staff mobility is a positive trend within the legal field -- for workers, who focus on striking a healthy work and personal-life balance, and for clients, who ultimately can receive more real-time response and service.”

In a dynamic business environment, firms that keep up with the latest legal research and industry trends will be better positioned to meet client demands and help their law practices thrive.

To learn more about how firms and corporate legal departments are reacting to current trends in the legal profession, download a copy of Robert Half Legal's Future Law Office report, "Client Dynamics Driving Change in the Legal Profession."