Agile brands are needed for a disruptive decade

Technology has disrupted professional services

Over the last 10 years a combination of technological and social changes has caused major disruption to businesses of all kinds. In the next 10 years this is only going to increase. Companies therefore have to respond with agility to adapt their business models and brands.  The retail and automotive sectors are repeatedly reported as facing existential challenges (online shopping, autonomous driving, environmental sustainability and social responsibility etc). But there is no sector that escapes the march of progress.

One sector that receives little coverage but where the challenges are no less acute is professional services. Everything from accountancy to law, architects to surveyors, consultancy to financial advice face a decade of intensifying disruption.

New technology and new types of competition are driving both cost pressures and a commoditization of the services on which many professional firms have relied for years both to sustain fees and as a training ground for new recruits.

Attitudes to work are changing

Meanwhile, the attitude and expectations towards a ‘career’ are also changing. More people are questioning why they should spend their lives working 12-hour days, locked in airless rooms, poring over PowerPoint reports, sometimes with people they dislike, in the hope that one day they might become a partner. It’s not the attraction it once might have been.

One company which has already responded with agility and with success to the disruption facing professional services is the law firm, Lewis Silkin. The partners recognised early how the threats from new types of competition, technology and changing employee attitudes would impact the legal profession. Critically, they understood how these threats were interconnected, particularly in the area of Employment and HR law, which is a key pillar of the firm.

There was new competition from HR consultancies using ‘advisers’ and from low-cost legal firms using junior lawyers. Technology had so advanced that companies were comfortable getting advice from paralegals online or by phone

Lawyers’ attitudes towards their careers were also changing. The structure and practices of a traditional law firm no longer suited them. Many were leaving law firms to become in-house counsel, or were joining the ‘gig economy’, becoming freelancers for firms such as LawyersDirect. Or they were quitting the law profession altogether.

These changes were driving greater transparency and accountability regarding fee structures and performance, putting pressure on pricing. They were also affecting how people wanted to and could work and risked a talent drain.

Turning a challenge into an opportunity

So how did Lewis Silkin address this existential crisis? By seeing it as an opportunity. They understood that though clients were going to demand lower and often fixed fees for advice on day-to-day employment issues, they would still prefer to pay a small premium if they knew that advice was provided by highly trained lawyers. At the same time they recognised that though very good lawyers were leaving law firms because of changes in their lifestyles or lifestages, they would prefer to remain with that law firm if it could adapt to their new needs in life.

By matching clients who wanted fixed fee services from trusted lawyers on the one hand with Lewis Silkin trained lawyers who wanted to work more flexibly on the other, the firm could see an opportunity to help its clients, retain its people and grow both its business and reputation.

The solution was to create a separately branded offer called Rockhopper, a dedicated fixed-fee employment and HR law business offering speedy advice from highly qualified Lewis Silkin lawyers by phone or web, cost-effectively. It has grown quickly and has enhanced not cannibalized the overall law firm’s business.

Much time and thought were given to articulating a sense of purpose for Rockhopper. The purpose connected an ethos about the law and client service which is a vital part of the Lewis Silkin culture with a vision about the future of employment. And it was translated into ‘hard practices’ about how Rockhopper was set up, operated, supported its people and worked collaboratively with the Lewis Silkin core business and brand.

Laura Farnsworth the Senior Partner leading Rockhopper has been delighted with its progress:

“Rockhopper has grown steadily year-on-year since its launch and has even exceeded target by 20%. Partners across the firm are engaged with and supportive of Rockhopper and almost all of our proposals and pitches for employment law services are now based on a combined offer of Rockhopper and core team services. Rockhopper has also given us access to a part of the market we were previously unable to reach due to cost, in fact many of Rockhopper’s clients are brand new to the firm. Importantly, it has enabled us to retain senior, talented lawyers who have been with Lewis Silkin for many years and who we would otherwise have lost due to the difficulty of combining a traditional legal career with other commitments.”

Laura Farnsworth, Senior Partner, Lewis Silkin

In support of Laura’s last point, Rockhopper won Best Innovation at the 2018 Working Families Best Practice awards.

And the main brand has also thrived. Lewis Silkin lawyers won a number of awards in 2019 in recognition of the excellent service they continue to provide.

The lesson from Lewis Silkin applies to all professional services firms – in fact to all businesses. Adopt agility. Develop an agile business model that enables you to respond swiftly, economically and effectively to clients’ needs, using technology that allows flexibility for your firm and your employees. It will help you deal with the decade of disruption.

Caffeine was delighted to work with Rockhopper as it built its brand.

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