Are we trying to build a House for a Tsunami?
Why we need to shift our perspective on change as we transition into the Future of Law
The legal industry is going through a significant period of change. It is no longer a question of whether change will affect us, but more a preparation for when. Leaning into change requires a lot of our energy, focus and time. I thought to share some of the lenses in which we need to explore what this
shift requires of us.
If you’re confused by the title, read on to the end. Whilst this article is more focused on what Law Firms need to consider, it is equally applicable to in-house, and other alternative service providers.
Imagine standing on the balcony of your two-storey house on the coast, looking out onto the ocean. You can only see as far as the shimmer that falls on the furthest wave, knowing that it continues for what seems like an infinite stretch. It’s a nice house, you’ve done your best to build it: you’ve envisioned what it could be, looked after it and renovated where necessary. The radio that plays music in the background is suddenly interrupted by an alarming beep followed by a message: “Warning! This is not a test. A Tsunami is heading for the coast. It will wipe out the majority of the landmass, evacuate immediately!” In that moment, time stands still. The primal concern is what to do next: What stays? What do I take with me? How do I survive? What could I build to ride it out? How long does it have to last?
You snap back to the reality around you - everything is about to change. It's time to build something to make it through the oncoming chaos. You think to gather those who are willing to build something to survive on and head to the workshop down the road…
All journeys begin with a vision. A destination, state or feeling that we see before we achieve, arrive or attain. The process of transformation in the legal industry requires no less vision than any other. Your vision will determine your decisions and directions as you navigate change.
Importantly, all journeys bring a future state to the present. A future state is unstoppable and inevitable. The calling, responsibility and opportunity is in creating the means to prepare and build for when that future becomes the present, and reap the rewards.
As Lawyers, Junior or Senior, and Firms in the legal industry (not to exclude other protagonists) we need to look forward 5, 10, 15 years, imagine, be creative and think about what could happen. We need to make notes on the way of the little things we pick up that are novel or beyond our current understanding, seek them out in the emerging innovations and map a path back to the present so that we can understand what would need to be done today, next week, month or year.
Some are gifted with vision while others focus attention in it and develop it to some degree. In any case, certain characteristics such as creativity build the capacity to have vision. As Legal Creatives’ Tessa Manuello (a FutureLab.Legal Partner) often says: “creativity can be learnt”.
Creativity is often the first step into insight, discovery and bringing the unknown into the known. Creativity flexes the muscle that allows us to break from the mould of a linear way of thinking - allows us to explore and find the new.
Not everyone will have the disposition to learn this quickly and not everyone may have a clear vision that can be shared in an effective way. It is important for the stewards to recognise those who possess this quality or have a disposition towards it and allow them to cultivate and thrive in that space. They don't need to be your leaders, but they need to be given the environment to lead.
As you drive to the workshop, you begin to call on others to join you there - you call those who you had seen were eager and capable. You didn’t worry about their age and experience, it was about bringing them together to work on something that would help everyone get through. You didn’t have time to consider why they wouldn’t be helpful - you purely focused on what piece of the puzzle they could be in a collective effort. You know each person would play a part - all with different talents and capabilities and would find their fit as long as the goal was clear. through. You didn’t have time to consider why they wouldn’t be helpful - you purely focused on what piece of the puzzle they could be in a collective effort. You know each person would play a part - all with different talents and capabilities and would find their fit as long as the goal was clear.
You pull into the workshop and start planning out the approach as others began to arrive and assemble…
If we were to consider an individual who can empower others to make decisions for themselves and ultimately contribute to the collective, we are considering the concept of stewardship. Traditionally this is reserved for the senior and equity partners - who ultimately create the entity and are committed to partner with each other in a common endeavour. Stewardship is most certainly needed but the challenge currently is what the sentiment of the senior staff is in the face of fundamental change.
Where the most senior firm partners believe this change is not relevant to them, there needs to be a more nuanced conversation about their own equity losses resulting through failing to allow incumbents to thrive in a completely different reality that they faced. Or perhaps a legacy conversation where if it is important to them, their stewardship would navigate and bridge the closing of one era of practice and the opening of a new era of law. Both conversations have merit - both are tied to intrinsic values that are not to be overlooked.
In either case, one thing can be sure - it is now an existential threat to the current form of practising law that highly capable and intelligent lawyers will - more and more - opt out of the rhetoric that circulates in their traditional environments. “This is the way we did things” is becoming a weaker and less relevant conversation year on year. With some of the innovations in the way law is taught in university and more agile institutions now and the successive and iterative changes to what educating a lawyer of the future demands, it will be a lot sooner than expected to find a completely demotivated legal workforce restrained in a traditional model. The gap between generations has placed large differences in sentiment and expectations in how legal services will be delivered and our contributions to that legal service delivery.
In this situation, the concept of stewardship will be one where the incumbent is given the resources to truly thrive, the space and ability to share and eventually try their ideas out and carve a path forward for the future of the firm. I don't suggest it to be a space for free and aimless wandering, but stewardship requires dedicated space matched with willingness to arrest the traditional thinking that leads us to believe those with less years could not possibly have something valuable to contribute.
Think for a second about the world you are leaving in the coming years as you plan to enter retirement. What is your motivation? To be abreast of all that is coming in your area of work? To be at the forefront of the changes and chances of the world? To steer and navigate your business through another storm?
These thoughts seem a little opposed to the concept of retirement. What then is the best possible value we can bring as an outgoing stakeholder? What does being a steward in this environment mean? Put differently: what gems can we find from within the mine of our business, to polish and clean and place on the mantle where we once were?
As you stare at the sketches laid out across the workbench, you find a few old drawings that had been mired by the smear of time. You brush the dust off to find there was some merit to some of your past ideas and for a brief moment you recognize the difference now was your sense of urgency, purpose and utility. You were struck by the way you were approaching this now that it was different, but it feels necessary in the circumstances. You realise now that you’re forced to produce; pursuing the plans beyond a minimal effort or with apathetic approach.
You take a breath and center your thoughts to the task at hand - it's time to build some plans, some process and systems to achieve the best result you and the others can achieve. As the others start to arrive with more frequency and the buzz of urgent chatter beings to reverberate across the workshop, you realise you need to follow genuine lines of inquiry to draw out as many perspectives and find the best solution…
For every statement that’s been thrown my way in the last two years about a problem or reason why “this wont work”, the answer was found with a little more digging. What we have an issue with here in being future ready are two things: apathy in the current situation and a toxic lack of genuine curiosity.
As lawyers we are retained and paid to know or at least find the best answers. We are also really good at portraying that, particularly in litigious settings. But the reality is, the true value of that capacity lies in an overarching ability to use the inquisitive mind, robust logic, pattern recognition to augment a genuine humility, curiosity and desire to solve problems or create opportunity.
We can't fall victim to framing a new problem with old lenses, that’s an express pathway to irrelevancy. We must be genuinely curious and passionate about responding to the needs and exigencies of what society requires of the law today. That is after all the calling of every advocate who serves this fundamental institution. There is no doubt that a first step in that direction by you will begin to unravel the skills and capacities, qualities and attributes needed to thrive in the future of law.
Frantic, inspired voices fill the workshop space as everyone discusses the best way to build the boat. There are several concerns floated that seem to have the support of the majority: a lack of resources, insufficient time, whether the right tools and materials exist, who has the expertise etc. It becomes clear that there are several processes to pursue in combination which turns the groups focus to you. The silence lulls the room and eyes turn expectantly. You think about what would be the most important matter to share with the group and decide to start at the level of principle. You know any superficial attempts to solve a very real problem will cost lives.
What you realise as you begin to explain this to the group is that whatever we build here, both the boat and the team around it - the outcome is going to be fundamentally
different to building your house that now sits vacant, waiting to be taken by the tide…
A little further down the road of curious discovery comes the reality of how a Firm can make decisions to commit time, personnel and other resources to innovate while being squeezed in the current market pressures. Firms that feel they need to innovate most are often locked to their standard churn. This is another of those “this wont work” conversations and the part where a little further digging is required. I can share several ways in which Firms approach this.
One is to incubate an idea, appoint/elect a small team who will be able to solve a problem
or create an opportunity and allow them the time and resources to pursue the challenge. This pathway by itself can present challenges as taking to much time away from the revenue generating sources and adding funds to a project that does not guarantee a return is beyond the capacity of most firms because of the churn problem.
Another is to draw from an outside consultant or assessment which would generate a report or project to transform an aspect of the firm. This is an event-based process that can have varied results, and in reality is a gamble to ultimately delay the irrelevance of the firm. Transformation is not event-based, but seen better on a continuum.
Another method that reflects the procurement strategy of many firms is the simple licence purchase of some form of software followed by heavy marketing to the effect of “we are innovative because we use x software”. This is a desperate front and utilizes an empty marketing process and while there may be gainful improvements - it is the underlying purpose and intent that eventually rings true. The problem that this method does not solve, is buyer sentiment. Your current clients and more importantly potential clients are choosing more efficient means across almost all other sectors of their business. To think that marketing such as this will create anything but eventual distrust or distaste with the value that your firm provides is futile. This is a long game and providing “superior service” purely through marketing as a more advanced firm through purchase of a piece of software is not a long-term win, particularly for emerging buyers (“new money”) who bring a completely new set of expectations.
Which leaves another method: Education. But not in the “I have a law degree” or “I need to get my CPD (continual professional development) points” way. Certainly not in the “let me consult and write you a report” way. Education that is relevant to now, essential for the future and respectful of the past. Education that is modular in application, flexible and agile. Education that meets the needs of the Firm on its continuum of learning and importantly, empowers the Firm to recognise its own needs. This kind of education isn’t commonly found, largely because the surrounding structures don't support it. There are few businesses set up to support firms in transitioning/innovating or even improving their odds in the current climate. Even so, what is important is the system underlying that process of education and I will outline what I have found as foundational elements below.
The process of education requires a system where:
Capacity is built in the Firm through regular education and accompaniment to be able to ideate, innovate and deliver changes both internally and externally.
Operates like an add-on where it generates and supports the learning as needed and can detach when no longer needed - giving flexibility to the Firm to balance their engagement/commitment, speed of progress with their business outcomes and cashflow. Ultimately the goal is to empower.
External overview, Analysis and Dot-Connecting including access both to a wide cross-section of individuals internally and to a broader external network to solve an issue or improve a situation.
An agnostic, merit based lens and attention on the latest technology offerings in the market most appropriate to improving the situation at hand.
Imagine standing at the helm of your boat, looking out onto the ocean. You can only see as far as the shimmer that falls on the furthest wave, knowing that it continues over for what seems like an infinite stretch. You also know to expect land at some point - it’s not what you’re used to but it is ironically what you also have to look forward to. In the meantime, you know the task is to steer as best as possible, to navigate this vessel to the stability of land. Anything you produce on the journey will be useful to the ultimate goal, the boat itself a testament to the important things needed to survive.
It’s a nice boat, you’ve done your best to build it - with your team: you’ve envisioned what it could be, how long it needs to last, looked after it and maintained it where necessary. The team that drives it, survives in it and everyone who is onboard knows they want the same ultimate goal, to find land.
You snap back to the reality around you - everything has changed. But the scene before you is far more promising than the one you had on your balcony just a few weeks ago.
When we seek results as a business, we seek a product. A guarantee as advertised “or your money back” scenario. But what we’re faced with in the legal industry globally is a fundamental transformation that re-asses every facet of the delivery of legal services, the structures that surround the law, the practice of law and the law itself as a concept. There is too much change to think there is a product, or an answer that will solve all problems. In times such as these, as in any other fundamental transformation in society, the qualities and characteristics that created the opportunity to thrive are curiosity, creativity, focus, willpower and detachment. Importantly, the most useful we can be to each other in times such as these is by accompanying others along the path, whatever the path may be.
When you build a house on a coast, and the coast becomes vulnerable to a Force Majeure; say a tsunami, It no longer becomes a question of how well the house was built but a question of how well we’re building a boat to ride it out. Additionally, if the resulting tsunami brings with it days, weeks or even years of unsettle-able land the most important thing will be whether we built this boat with days, weeks or years at sea in mind. The most valuable people in this situation will be those who can assist in building boats, who can assist in navigation and accompany those who seek to survive.
The outcomes we seek as a business in the current disruption need to be more like the boat, not the house - and more like the characteristics and realities of the boat, not the house. The Vision, the Stewardship, the Behaviours and the Process need to align with the boat and not the house. The services we call on to assist us need to treat it more like the boat and not the house. This is how we thrive in a time of change. The opportunity of a boat is far more abundant than the opportunity of the house in this situation. The house and resulting stability will come, but when? Without a doubt, the first to know will be those already sailing to the new frontiers.
About the Author
Quddus Pourshafie has paved his own way in the Legal Industry after recognizing the traditional pathways were failing to align with the future practice of law. Since his admission, he has dedicated to solving the Legal Industry’s biggest problem: transitioning into a future of law brought about by technological disruption.
Known for his ability to think laterally and connect the dots, Quddus has positioned himself to bridge the various protagonists in the legal industry to bring about the necessary transformation, making it his mission to assist those who are ready to tread that path. Quddus also believes it is the first time in recent history where young graduates can change their value proposition in the market as a digital native.
Lending from his creative DNA as a musician and various entrepreneurial ventures, Quddus continues to grow Futurelab.legal and its projects with partners around the world to accompany Firms, Universities, LegalTech companies and Regulators of the Legal Profession and prepare them for the Future of Law.
You can reach Quddus through his website: www.FutureLab.Legal and connect with him via his social channels.
The Future of Law Podcast: https://anchor.fm/the-future-of-law-podcast