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Successfully Riding the Waves of Change

October 26, 2015

Roz Bahrami

After many years of feeling a bit like the infamous Chicken Little ‎I must say that I am heartened to see the legal profession taking note of the paradigm shift underway in the industry. While I don’t believe the sky is falling, I do believe seismic shifts are underway. The industry as a whole sits in a mature market phase so the very nature of how legal services are defined, delivered, valued and priced are being scrutinized, by many forces, from many angles and change of one form or another is guaranteed to result. Depending on the area of practice, role and practice environment, some lawyers feel the pressure to change like a tsunami while other note a gentle shift in trade winds.

Whatever the context, an open acknowledgement that change is afoot is slowly becoming the commonplace reality for the majority of lawyers across the spectrum of settings and roles. Interestingly, and yet not that surprisingly given the autonomous nature of lawyers, the response to this change is as varied as the types and forms of practice available.

Opinions abound as to how to respond to the changing landscape. I have heard everything from do nothing (as this is nothing more than a “race to the bottom” that will self-correct once the less competent are run out of business) to overhaul your practice to become more efficient (as this is a golden opportunity to grab market share) to innovate and create a new, completely different offering (and with it create new markets).

While I don’t have a crystal ball or “THE right answer” (frankly I don’t think there is one “right” answer), I do think the “do nothing” approach is ill advised. Examples of those who did nothing while everything around them changed (from Polaroid, to Kodak, to Blockbuster) do not bode well for that approach. The approach you do take will, however, depend very much on your environment and there is no guarantee that it will be “right” the first time. That’s OK. In fact, you are more likely than not going to make some mistakes. Many mistakes. The important thing is to fail fast, move forward and learn from those mistakes. Recognize that this is a marathon, not a 100 meter dash.

When deciding what path to take it is worth noting that much of the pressure to adjust is coming from changes underway in client behavior and client needs which directly impacts the role of in-house counsel. Merely knowing the right legal answer has increasingly become table stakes. Being able to apply that legal knowledge while taking into account budgetary impact, business context and practical implications in order to deliver a solution-oriented recommendation that drives business results is where more and more in-house talent is being pushed and where they really deliver value for their organization.

And this is where the impact and opportunity for external counsel kicks in. With clients and/or internal counsel pressed for time and resources while being expected to deliver results, clients look to their external service providers for practical advice that makes it easier for them to decide what to recommend or do. For example, executive summaries with clearly articulated recommended next steps and cost implications are critical whether your clients are large organizations or individuals in a family law dispute – arguably even more so for the latter type of client. A simple enough step and while it sounds easy enough to do, it is surprisingly difficult to do well without conscious attention to developing skills associated with succinctly delivering such a product and truly understanding the needs and context of your specific clients as well, if not even better, than they do.

This is where continuous improvement and development of your personal skill sets is imperative. You can’t control the needs and contexts of your clients or the path that the legal profession takes as the waves of change come crashing in. You can, however, master the skills required to surf the waves and enjoy the thrill of the ride.

To that end, courses and conferences abound that help lawyers develop the business skills needed to thrive in this emerging new world. I encourage you to think about what skills you could brush up on or develop to help you navigate these uncharted waters. As a panellist for an upcoming OsgoodePD  program, I am biased and quite like the practical insights and perspectives offered by that program. The fact that the modules address skills required to surf with confidence, combined with the ability to sign up for modules as a package or a la carte, particularly appeals to me.

Whatever type of program and/or resources appeal to you, take charge of your journey and regularly identify opportunities to acquire skills that will enable you to jump in with enthusiasm and confidence. Given you readily figured out how to master law school concepts like torts, laws of perpetuities and adjusted cost bases you have the learning mindset needed to unlock these additional business skills and concepts that will help you tackle the puzzle of the paradigm shift.

Whether you are focused on innovation, improvement or just staying the course, one thing is certain, regularly investing in your broader business skills is necessary to remain competitive in this regularly shifting environment. Whatever your year of call I encourage you to embrace the love of learning embedded in each and every one of you and develop and hone the skills needed to ride this wave of change. You won’t regret it!

Picture of Melissa LaFlairMELISSA LAFLAIR, PMP, LL.B., IVEY HBA, practiced corporate and securities law at the Toronto offices of Torys, LLP and Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, spent 7 years as General Counsel and Executive Vice President for DRI Capital Inc., and is a Certified Project Management Professional who now provides a spectrum of services from education to process improvement to strategic goal setting to resource planning and implementation. In each case, she provides clients with practical and effective solutions to legal and business challenges.