‘How we broke the traditional model’: Lessons from the legal sector

May 7, 2020

Liza RobbinsBy Liza Robbins.

If you were a carpenter frustrated because your team didn’t want to wear safety masks, where might you go for advice?

Other carpenters? Industry experts?

A famous Harvard study shows you would be much better off consulting roofers and in-line-skaters. Although they are substantially different fields, all three need workers (or in the case of in-line skaters, competitors) to wear uncomfortable safety equipment.

“Over the course of years of studying innovation,” the researchers concluded, “we’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level.”

That’s why today I want to tell you about Robert Taylor, founder of 360 Business Law, an innovative law firm with over 200 lawyers covering 50 countries.

You see, as the Coronavirus crisis continues globally, the market we operate in is going to evolve – and we are all going to be under pressure to adjust the way we work.

There is also going to be no better chance for us – and for our competitors – to innovate than right now, when the old ways of doing things are crumbling.

So whether we see it as a threat or an opportunity (and to be clear, here at Kreston we see it as the latter) – change is coming.

And Robert’s experience disrupting a different, but in many ways analogous industry, holds many lessons for us in accountancy, both in terms of what we can be doing – and what we can reasonably expect competitors to do, too.

Robert’s law firm has introduced a completely new model of operating in the law industry.

His firm, set up 6 years ago, is mostly virtual.

They have a small office in Surrey, and a small team covering HR, admin, marketing, finance and so on. But all the solicitors, barristers and overseas attorneys are consultants, working from their own homes.

Having so little physical infrastructure has allowed 360 Business Law to drastically reduce its overheads – making it much more competitive. It has also been able to introduce radical new service packages, for example allowing clients to subscribe to certain services for a set fee.

This is an enormous departure from a traditional firm, which would have large, often expensive offices and charge hourly (and often very steep) fees.

Robert spotted the gap in the market when the British government introduced new legislation in 2007, meant to deregulate the legal profession and bring in new competition.

“I wanted to take advantage of this act and create a much more commercially, client-focused business than existed at the time,” he told me.

The reaction from the industry was overwhelmingly sceptical.

“They thought we were a bunch of fools and that we’d never survive – that we can’t break the old model,” he says.

Clients, however, loved both the lower fees and their predictability. And they also loved the quality of the work.

Over time, as they became more established, they were able to attract the very best talent, so the legal services clients received were of the same standard they would receive from ‘magic circle’ firms – albeit without the frills (“We don’t offer beautiful meeting rooms or biscuits,” says Robert).

Clients also appreciated a simple service model. Everyone communicates via the same email address, and is billed centrally no matter where they are accessing services. The firm also developed its own IT infrastructure to streamline delivery of projects, and further lower costs.

With time, the quality of clients improved. Nowadays the firm – which was named a Times Top 200 firm 2020 in the UK – regularly attracts FTSE-250 and Nasdaq-listed clients.

Looking ahead, he says, there will always be a market for the largest, traditional legal firms, but smaller, high street firms are under pressure, and “Coronavirus will cripple the lower end of the market.”

Agile firms like Robert’s will be in prime position to take much of that business.

“The magic circle firms in the UK are all busy furloughing staff, changing partnership structures and removing profit schemes in order to cope,” he says. “It’s hit them hard, because they are still encumbered with enormous structures which are eating their cash reserves.

“We became fully virtual within an hour-and-a-half, and don’t have any of those costs.”

So what can we learn in our own industry?

Robert admits that his model is not easily replicable for existing firms – it’s much easier to build from scratch.

Existing firms, however, can do a lot more to reduce their overheads and infrastructure costs, “and bring it down to a far more IT-based service, where people can work from home and cut down on travel.

“You can focus on your essential work – the accountancy and consultancy services – rather than the frills.”

If you don’t, others doubtless will – especially given the normalisation of remote working – – so you must figure out how to compete against them.

Ultimately, implementing a different model (whether it is this one, or another) requires courage and vision.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that the traditional accounting firm model is impossible to break.

“They laughed at us at first,” Robert concludes, “But now we’re impossible to ignore.”