LPM talks to Chris Jeffery of Thomson Reuters about how affordable technology will impact SME efficiency, online presence, pricing, and inform a new phase of firm management
Originally published in Legal Practice Management magazine
Client experience is becoming a selling point for SME legal services – traditional firms or newly formed ABSs – and it’s innovations in marketing, service delivery and technology that are helping firms to make that change.
SME law firms have some great potential advantages over the big boys, though, around changing the way they work and delivering better – and cheaper – client service. Resources and infrastructure that were once the preserve of much larger firms at a cheaper price point have put powerful tools within the reach of firms in the SME segment ambitious for agility.
For Chris Jeffery, head of small law at Thomson Reuters UKI, firms have to face the market challenges with better business acumen to help them thrive. “The SME law firm market grew by an average of 4-5% in 2013,” he says, “but despite that growth, a lot of firms admit that 2014 is a concern. They’re not sure they’ll see that same level of growth.”
“Firms are being squeezed by competitors, people are making do without legal advice, and the larger firms are now doing work they previously wouldn’t have been able to offer at competitive rates.”
The larger firms are competing harder with the SME legal market partly because “they’re using their capital to invest in technology solutions and, along with the use of offshoring, it means they can deliver services at a competitive fee, or even cheaper than some of the smaller firms”, explains Jeffery.
But these tools and methods have also become widely available to the SME segment, he says – and they can be more agile than the big firms. A key selling point will be to demystify the legal process for clients.
“The best SME law firms will undertake an education of the end consumer,” he says, with firms creating easier and better client experience that is simpler to understand.
A vital part of the move to simplicity is pricing. Enabled by those resources, SME firms are getting more creative and competitive in the way they price and deliver work, says Jeffery. A big opportunity, both to retain existing clients and bring in new ones, could come from capturing potential work where solicitors firms aren’t currently – recognising untapped demand.
Law firms need to be much more aware that consumers and businesses alike have legal problems – they just don’t recognise that they are legal problems.
Educating the clients about how their problems can be solved by law firms is the route to that untapped demand, Jeffery says.
One sign of a more sales-led thinking inside firms is the arrival of corporate heads and CEOs from professional services now coming into legal.
“They have a different outlook on what the practice is doing and the way the firm should operate. ‘Sales’ is a dirty word in the legal industry, but the ABS new entrants and large members’ organisations, for example have direct access to the customer base and ready-made leads.”
But, says Jeffery, it’s SME firms’ client knowledge that will help firms get the jump on their competitors. “They have to focus on the end client, demonstrate the value they’re adding, and deliver the same level of service clients might get at larger firms, possibly at a cheaper cost. That can be their differentiator.”
Minimising operating costs inside the firm is high up most SME firms’ agendas, but profitability tools will also benefit firms. Like the big firms, a focus on profitability will give greater vision into what work costs to do, and whether to do it – and it will help firms deliver work to clients in a very cost-predictable way.
“Some matters won’t return a profit, and if your focus is on technology, delivery and efficiency, you know all that in advance. It’s amazing that, in certain areas of law, firms present to clients not knowing what the timescale or cost will be, which doesn’t fill the end consumer with confidence.”
Technology and IT solutions enable firms to better predict “the costs, timescale, precedents and documents used, and the obstacles encountered previously, then present that to the consumer”, he says.
Using AFAs (mainly fixed fees) as an element of building client trust is now a standard part of the ‘sell’. But firms internally also need to embed a culture of profitability. “Most firms are already offering fixed fees for certain work. Knowing if that work is profitable, or whether loss leading might lead to getting more work further down the line, presents a lot of issues.
A big part of retention and winning new work is about a positive impression at the start of that relationship, says Jeffery. Technology can play a huge part in that, cutting out the work a client has to do at the start by cutting out processes in data capture by the firm. Technology solutions can also turn that information into product, cutting the cost of production and making the offering more competitive.
Cloud may play a role in a more techno future for law firms. Until recently, says Jeffery, SME firms needed a lot of expertise to operate and maintain technologies that simply allow software and services to run (servers, etc) and to host software behind the firm’s firewall. “With cloud technologies, they don’t need any of that. They just log in and have what they need.” And as cloud-based solutions become more secure, firms outside the top 150 are fast becoming more comfortable with the prospect of them – plus, they can enormously reduce costs and bump profitability.
But these technologies won’t help firms work smarter – better internal communications and collaboration has to happen as well. “The biggest thing is a need for greater collaboration,” he says. “A lot of firms see themselves internally as a collection of individual partners with their own client base, not sharing with anyone. Struggling firms need to know they already have people who can provide solutions, and to use them.”
The receptive and agile-minded SME law firms out there will be the ones to achieve this, he says – because they are composing new ways of working, backed by technology, that create demand and deliver work in cheaper, better ways.
For more information on Legal Solutions from Thomson Reuters, please visit legal-solutions.co.uk