We are living in an environment of significant change in terms of how we, as lawyers, do business. If we don’t start to acknowledge and adapt to change, there is every chance that our roles, as we know them today, will become redundant.
Despite the shifts that are occurring in our industry, there are some areas of practice that are thriving. In the family law arena, mediation and collaborative practice are leading the way in providing lasting and affordable legal solutions for separating families. So why is this the case?
Three drivers of change in the legal industry
There’s never been an easier time for individuals to move into business. This is the case for almost every service industry and particularly the legal industry. Thanks to technology, traditional barriers to entry have been removed. We are living in an information age. You can run a business from the palm of your hand with no more than an iPhone. Gone are the days of large impressive offices and hordes of staff. These days we are seeing a rise of ‘virtual’ firms and boutique practices that often don’t have a bricks and mortar presence. As long as you are ‘online’ you can compete with the best of them for business in our modern world.
These changes have been happening around us for a number of years, and perhaps, like anything, when you are living through it, you are not even aware that it is occurring. Our legal marketplace is changing, and there are three significant drivers of this change.
Our modern day market place is driving change. Clients are seeking so much more than ever before from their professionals. This extends beyond the legal industry to all professional service firms- accountants, financial planners and even the medical profession. Our clients are seeking value beyond the mere price on a page.
In an industry that has survived on billable hours and time based billing, the notion of ‘value’ is something that does require a rethink of how we price and deliver our service.
Clients are looking to buy so much more than our legal knowledge. In this information age, pure legal knowledge is at your fingertips, whether you are a lawyer or not. You can now jump online, read recent decisions, research case law, legislation and chat to people in circumstances just like yours. Sure this information may not be the most accurate or particular to your circumstances, but chances are, if you try hard enough, you can find the answer to your legal question.
In this environment, clients are seeking so much more than legal information from their legal professionals. They are buying a ‘relationship’ or an ‘experience’. It is the delivery of this experience that creates value for clients. Those firms who are focusing on their service delivery- the experience and the relationship- as much or even more than their legal knowledge, are easily adapting to this change and being rewarded. By looking outside of the traditional legal box and considering the particular needs of each client, firms are able to tailor products and packages that offer clients so much more than a pure legal solution.
The rise and rise of modern technology is a significant driver of change in our profession. The information age and our infatuation with social media are causing significant shifts in how firms deliver and market their services. Clients can now engage directly with practitioners through Facebook pages and other social media platforms. Professionals can quickly engage with other professionals from firms all around the world, sharing information and knowledge through LinkedIn and Twitter. And internally, within firms, technology is increasingly being utilised to make work practices more efficient and streamlined. We cannot overlook the impact of technology in terms of our shifting market place, particularly over the coming years.
The final driver of change in our profession is what I call a changing of the guard. There has been much talk of the large number of graduates coming out of Universities and struggling to find work in the legal profession. For the first time, the number of females employed in senior roles in our profession is starting to equal and even outnumber the number of male practitioners. This is truly evident in family law.
As younger practitioners join our profession, they are challenging traditional work practices. Long days and billable hours are not inspiring our younger members to embrace careers in law. Instead, the halls are ringing with phrases like ‘work/life balance’, with firms focussing on employment retention schemes that are based around employee wellbeing.
Recent statistics here in Australia are showing that one in every three solicitors is at risk of suffering depression at some time during their career. This is by no means a statistic that should be ignored. As an employer, a practitioner and a colleague, this is something that concerns me on almost a daily basis. It is time that we as a profession began to speak more openly about the pressures of the jobs that we do and how we can change our work practices to minimise these pressures, support each other and ensure that the statistics do not remain what they currently are.
These marketplace drivers are creating significant shifts in the work practices in firms. Firms that continue to be creative and challenge traditional norms will be successful in this market space.
Why are processes like Collaborative Practice thriving in this market place?
Over the past 10 years, we have seen the significant rise of collaborative practice as a resolution process for separating families in Australia. While mediation is now common place- accepted and ‘normal’- we only have to turn our minds back around 15 years when those purporting to practice mediation were considered to be a little ‘fringe’- trying something ‘new’ and perhaps a little ‘out of the box’.
Well now who isn’t a mediator? And who isn’t regularly participating with clients in mediation?
We are seeing the same trend in terms of a rise of Collaborative practice as we have seen over recent years with the profession’s adoption of mediation.
Collaborative practice offers practitioners and clients ‘added benefits’ that mediation, in its usual legal form, is unable to provide. This makes Collaborative practice a process that is both attractive to a modern family law client and to the professionals that service them.
Clients who are seeking value beyond legal knowledge and expertise are attracted to the collaborative process. This is because collaborative practice offers a bespoke solution, guided by the values and goals of a couple in a way that no other legal process is able to be. Using the principles of interest based negotiation, collaborative practitioners are able to offer a solution that is more than just the application of legal rights and entitlements. It is a solution that is based upon the beliefs, the goals and the values of the family at hand. Collaborative practice offers our clients solutions that can ensure longevity as both short term and long term goals are considered. Using a team environment and the expertise of lawyers and other professionals, all issues relating to a separation can be considered. This should be contrasted to other legal processes where often legal issues are considered in a vacuum as that ‘other stuff’ just isn’t ‘relevant’ to the legal issue in hand. But anyone working with families knows only too well that unless that ‘other stuff’, the stuff that really matters to people who are falling out of love, is acknowledged, there is a strong chance that a legal solution will only offer a band aid for a family that often needs so much more.
For practitioners, Collaborative practice offers benefits that more traditional legal processes simply can’t. Collaborative practitioners are empowered to be creative problem solvers in a team environment that is free of most of the stresses often associated with traditional legal practice.
It is very rare in day to day practice as a family lawyer that you have the opportunity to work alongside a colleague from another firm together solving a problem for a couple. More often than not, you are pitted against that colleague, perhaps solving your client’s problem, but more often than not, to the detriment of their former spouse.
Collaborative professionals maintain their primary duty to represent and advocate on behalf of their client, but their agenda is slightly different in that the issues in dispute become the common problems of everyone at the table. The old saying “many hands makes light work” is never truer than in a collaborative process. With multiple skilled professional minds all on the couple’s common problems, the solutions that flow are far more suited to the couple involved and their own plans for their future, than can be achieved by the pure application of law.
Collaborative practice as a practitioner encourages creativity, problem solving and communication, which are often the core skills that so many family lawyers innately have that led them to this area of the law in the first place.
It is these skills that will hold us in great stead in this ever-changing market place. With ever increasing cost and delay of more traditional legal processes such as the Court process, it is not surprising that both clients and practitioners are seeking alternatives. The market shifts that are occurring around us are creating a market space in which processes such as collaborative practice can and will thrive.
If you are interested in becoming a Collaborative Lawyer or learning more about Collaborative Practice, Clarissa is running Introductory and Advanced training workshops in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney during 2017.Learn more about Introductory Collaborative Training
Learn more about Advanced Collaborative Training