Fast Company's Cliff Kuang recently wrote an article covering the differences in UX between Apple and Android operating systems under the umbrella of discussing how Google learned Design. Eight years ago, Google hired Evelyn Kim as its own first visual designer. Her goal: redesign almost every product at google under the pillars of beauty and function.
This wasn't without complications. Google's product teams operated as "tiny fiefdoms", with each creator avidly protecting his or her creations. Over the course of several weeks, Kim and her team created a unified design language to exist across all of Google and named it "Kanna" (the Icelandic word for "explore"). The results overwhelmed the executives.
Google use to be the company that "tested 42 shades of blue" for its hyperlinks to discover which one people clicked on the most. In 2011 after Larry Page became reinstated, Page informed Google that the company now cared about beauty and user experience.
The article continues to covers how products became secondary to Design. "Computing power eventually became a secondary draw to user experience." However, mobile forced design to the center stage. As the mobile market grew and apps developed, user experience became the definitive selling point.
Page gathered a small team of designers with Kim and tasked them with a single mission: "beautify" Google's products. Within a few months, they had modernized and simplified all of Google's products. As Kim recounts how she and her team won the design battle at google, she states:
The article continues to cover how Page, Kim, and the rest of the team didn't wish for this to be a one-off type of project; instead, they wanted to instill this design-thinking into Google itself as part of its culture. So Google created the Material Design team as a permanent group. Its goal? To "come to the aid of the myriad product-design teams, helping solve any problems they encounter." Designers who aren't part of the permanent team are given "tours of duty" within the Material Design team for both their own learning, and to impart their own reflections and knowledge.
The article closes with the following reflection:
New Kinds of Competition
Now, you might be wondering: what exactly does this arrticle have to do with the Altman Weil survey? I believe it fits perfectly within the lessons to be learned from it. In May of 2015, Altman Weil released its 2015 Law Firms in Transition survey (PDF here). As the survey begins:
An apt description. The responding group is comprised of the managing partners at 47% of the 2015 NLJ 3250 law firms and 45% of the 2014 AmLaw 200 law firms. These firms ranging in size from under 25 to over 1,000 attorneys. If AmLaw rankings by revenue and attorney staffing sizes can be considered measures of "success" then the survey provides incredible insight into the goals, strategies, and plans of over half of the most successful law firms in the United States.
Right? I think you'll find some of the results surprising.
Overall, the survey showed optimism among the respondents as revenue growth is entering a potential indicating pre-recession levels.
Sounds great, right? The survey responds:
The results indicate that many firms are engaging in a number of changes in response to post-recession market forces. However, Altman Weil characterizes these as "limited, tactical, and reactive."
Client's aren't asking for it. Instead of taking a proactive response and adapting to the changing legal market, increased cost-driven responses, the most successful strategy to date has been to wait for clients to spell out their demands.
Now, you may think: perhaps the largest firms don't perceive new threats? The survey again indicates that this isn't the case:
And who's taking the business? Apparently its the clients themselves.
As the article states, "Clients may not be asking for change - but they are showing law firms that they can, and will, take alternative measures themselves to achieve greater efficiency and economy." In other words, if law firm's won't offer it, clients will build it.
As of 2015, the second largest "non-traditional" threat to law firm business is client's use of technology tools that reduce the need for lawyers and paralegals.
Finally, non-law-firm providers of legal and quasi-legal services are taking business from 17% of law firms. 38% surveyed report that they perceive non-firm vendors as a potential competitive threat. However, only 9% of firm leaders reported they are losing business to that sector.
As the legal market recovers post-recession, the greatest problem facing law firms is (for some surprising, for others perhaps unsurprisingly) overcapacity. Too many lawyers and not enough work.
The surprising new dilemma? The development of the non-equity partner track within firms. "Although most firms have non-owner partnership tier and see its potential value, in many law firms a non-equity tier has become a warehouse for under performing lawyers." 43% of all firms and 67% of firms with 250 or more lawyers say they have too many non-equity partners. Here is a graph from the survey illustrating a similiar problem facing these nonequity partners:
Non-equity partners, according to the survey, have a 20% chance of making it into the equity tier.
The second and final internal problem facing law firms: the (mostly) unplanned succession and retirement of baby-boomer partners. Despite the inevitable move toward the retirement of this enormous class of senior lawyers, only 31% of responding firms have a formal succession planning process in place. You might be wondering: why is this a big deal?
A scary thought. Finally, the survey indicates that partner's resistance to change is a theme and a persistent threat to law firm success. 43$ of firm leaders cite partner resistance as one of the reasons their firm is not doing more to change.
Industry Lessons to be Learned; or The Importance of Design in the Evolved(ing) Legal Market
I would like you to imagine an industry both more volatile in the near future and more susceptible to disruption. I'm not here to beat the drum of changing coming to the legal industry. No, instead, I believe the survey shows that that moment has come and passed.
Google, like the 20th century development of the legal industry, became obsessed with growth over its users' experiences. This growth lead to poor relationships and a smeared reputation among internal developers and for Google's brand. Similarly, the 20th century saw the emergence of the billable hour, soaring legal rates on that hour, and the emergence of the 1,000+ attorney "super firms." And just like Google, the survey shows that the legal industry lost its focus.
User is the most appropriate term in this context. Not customer, not a billable reference code, and not client. Client is how the legal industry described its users in the 20th century. Client holds special legal signifiance from a Professional Rule standpoint, but user better describes the experience of legal consumers in the 21st century.
A legal industry user is one who has a continued use or enjoyment of a right. That right is inherent in the legal profession and it is that that the purchaser always comes first.
Over half of the most successful law firm leaders report that, as the survey shows, despite the recognition of the loss of revenue and the perceived threat of the future loss of revenue, the fact that the client hasn't demanded it means there isn't a reason to do it. Like Google, the legal industry has lost sight of what it means to deliver service to its users.
For the industry and for its leaders, this means researching, predicting, testing, and empathizing with your user. It means building what is likely to take business from you in the future before someone else does.
And the survey shows that this is already underway with firms reporting the largest loss of business to clients themselves. Between downstream client consumption and the inevitable (and recognized) consumption of legal jobs, the relationships upon which most legal business is won will continue to shrink as client purchasing power shifts.
And as any business book will tell you, in an industry with high customer purchasing power, user experience, if properly nurtured as seen in Google, can become an incredible competitive advantage. Instead, as we are currently seeing, many leaders move toward a simple cost-cutting approach as a means of differentiation.
A discounted and price-slashing approach leads to the staffing problems we are currently seeing as firms continue to lose business. This leads to an inevitable death-spiral between lowered rates, less recognized revenue and a bulging senior class.
When these forces are combined with the loss of legal work to both technology and the customer, its unlikely that lost business will return. When customer purchasing power shifts and down-steam consumption of business occurs, this work is nigh on impossible to recover.
Law Firms, like Google, need a moment of self-reflection and clarity. What legacy do leaders wish to leave? Beyond that, in 5 more years, will the continued shrink of legal work to outside forces leave law firms looking, working, and acting as they do now?
Altman Weil 2020: What Do You Expect to See?
In closing, I want to leave with a question: in 2020, what do you expect to see in the legal industry? Its obvious from the report that a perceived threat is not enough to, at this time, motivate significant change. Will 2020 reveal that waiting for users to demand change as a successful strategy?
I believe not. Further, I believe that it is a nearly impossible task to attempt to change a ship with over 1,000+ passengers and instill a technology-company-design-and-user-experience culture into such a ship. Is the future law firm a law firm? I don't think so, not necessarily. I believe that firms should move toward an elite, highly bespoke boutique offering tailored exclusively on customer demands. Invariably, the "bulk" of legal work will move toward technology companies both independently and working with customers themselves.
So, when you bring up design to the legal industry in the future, do you think people will scoff?