The purpose of this article is not to predict the future but to show that this Corona
International Live Event has the potential to serve as a societal inflection point, in addition to serving as a trend accelerant.
A mesmerising Parag P. Tripathi, Senior Advocate for two decades, had told me that genuine sense of humour alone will distinguish you from others in the legal profession apart from other tick lists. With his advice in mind and no coat tails to hang on to, I started my law office on my decade-old Priya scooter in 2000.
After years of toil, today at least in few practices we have earned a stellar leadership reputation. Today, the best companies and law firms from across the world hire us. With the Covid-19 storm brewing over the world, however, our pace and peace too has been disrupted. We are all gasping for breath and fighting for our survival in this new crisis which a nation like Great Britain describes as the lowest economic position in 300 years.
With the economy hospitalised and the businesses bleeding, the only medication that can help the businesses recover are the ground-breaking structural reforms that one undertakes. These changes will redefine all the existing professional relationships too. The businesses will be looking out for specialised legal services on the issues they face, from the best among the competent and at the most competitive cost owing to a shrinking budget and a sinking feeling.
Now, all the existing law firms and legal service retainers of the companies will be tested qua these bedrock criteria laid down by the businesses. Like every other relationship, the ones built on mutual trust, perseverance and resilience will survive the test of time and the legal profession would not remain untouched by this new relationship paradigm.
As some experts say, “Clients will increasingly become customers and will buy their services in a way that they buy other services in their lives.” Deep down, we all know that the customer compares all the possible options and finalises the best product/services with all desired features at the bare minimum cost, just like the popular advertisement featuring actor Alia Bhatt, where she mocks the other character for paying much higher price for the same category of room in the same hotel. The same will happen in the legal industry with increased scrutiny of legal budgets by corporates of all shapes.
Alas! Clients may no longer pay for the great grandfather’s pen still being used in the firm or a display of paintings by the talented and much missed M. F. Husain in the conference rooms of large law firms. Now will be the time when the client will be under pressure to pay competitive charges in the new dynamic yet evolving legal service market.
With the change in role from client to customer, the demands and expectations of the newly developed customer would be different in comparison to the earlier too-busy client. The power equations would change remarkably and as it is said customer is the king and the king dictates the terms of the market.
In the times ahead, as the businesses will struggle to revive, they will be faced with a number of issues and compliances, majority of them being legal due to the new world order. Undoubtedly, the need for legal professionals would rise exponentially as indeed the legal profession’s core role is to support and facilitate the activities of society including commercial activity while protecting the rights and welfare of its members.
At the same time, the client will now find it difficult to pay for the same service at the existing unchecked, exorbitant cost and there the customer would take up the task of looking out to make the “best choice”. The flooding of the internet with webinars by all small and big firms everywhere in this lockdown situation seems like an attempt to showcase the speciality and knowledge, but at the same time, it sends a signal of a Mayday alarm for help to hire the professional services offered.
As the power dynamics are evolving, and the ball being in the court of the client-customer, the focus will be most on the cost effectiveness of the legal services provided and without a doubt, competitive cost will be a defining factor. The customer will be picking up the best package with all the features at the most cost-efficient value. The bills will now be carefully scrutinised and, at last, the customer will treat equals equally.
The firms projecting the same award in different fields will be treated equally by the customer, for instance the IBLJ award, where two firms who won the same award in different categories, serve the client with highly differentiated cost. The client is most likely to go for the firm which offers the same services in a third of the billing hour of other firms and is more generous and thankful in its approach towards the client.
Collaboration, agility, experience, speciality, results, competency, perseverance, integrity and trust will drive the buy-sell dynamic, not pedigree and provenance. The professional relationships will now be built on the foundation of mutual trust, respect and gratitude for each other.
This health crisis, which has propelled an unprecedented economic crisis in centuries has knocked our door with not one but multiple icebergs, and the decades-old attitudinal hardwired practice of law would find it sometime challenging to sail in these rough Covid sea. The smaller super-skilled law firms are a safer bet which can bypass these icebergs and find its way through them as they are more open to reform and are very hungry. Those who can gratuitously ride on these reform boats have a fairly high chance of surviving these prolonged, stormy and rough waters.
Unfortunately, the issue that bigger law firms face is also that they tend to lose too many of their people who find their way to other or newer firms purely for commercial reasons. This creates scepticism in the minds of the Client. Whereas on the other hand, the smaller firm tends to keep its key personnel intact with them, which creates better trust and coordination amongst the legal professional, client and the firm.
The industry will accelerate its gradual transformation to a multidisciplinary, integrated, platform-driven, capitalised, data-based, problem-solving, customer-centric marketplace all around the world. The business and profession of law, after all, reflect the needs and trends of society as a whole, and will adapt to serve those needs in whatever ways are necessary. Adopting to the new tools, technology and mechanism will become crucial. Here the smaller firms also will have to spend more and catch up with big law firms as they have the leverage in adopting to new technologies.
Whereas on one hand, the independent advocates are facing economic hardships in paying the salaries of the staff and meeting the expenses as the litigation is at a standstill, on the other hand, the bigger firms are taking huge pay cuts at the top level to strive. In such circumstances, where both the extremes are facing big problems, those who are sailing in the middle sea are in a better position to meet their expenses, shield their staff and employees and deliver to the client.
In order to safeguard ourselves from the virus, it is imperative that we reboot the existing system and upgrade to the humbler version, as the old feudal version will soon become outdated and the support to the historical version would sooner or later be replaced by the new agile humane legal service provider.
Needless to say, the faster to adapt to these changing times would be the ones to reap the best out of it. But one thing is certain that these times would go down in history, and only if we knew what the future holds for us, we will be able to make better decisions today. But as it is said, if decisions were made in hindsight, fools would rule this world. The tie from Milan or the Gucci from Paris will alone not decide the “effect” of the law firm on a client anymore, the critical deciding factor may well be, apart from excellent practice of law, thankfulness, humility, gratitude and a captivating dose of humour.
Sudhir Mishra is an Advocate and Founder & Managing Partner of Trust Legal.