Changes are taking place in the legal profession that are outside our past experience and each firm needs to undertake a fundamental review of every aspect of its business model.
That was the underlying message, or one of them, to come from a high powered seminar last night led by Tony Williams, a former managing partner of global law firm Clifford Chance and now principal of Jomati Consultants LLP.
Organised by recruitment consultants PRG and attended by an impressive list of senior managers from the Scottish legal and accountancy worlds, the event took the title "The future of private practice" and enabled Williams to share with a domestic audience his perspectives gained from an international spread of work.
Much of his message ought to be familiar to Scottish professionals by now, and the picture, he told me, is remarkably similar wherever in the world you go. Clients are facing major cost pressures and are continually demanding more for less from their advisers. Firms are competing aggressively for work and if you are not taking it from others, you will find it being taken from you. The key issue is how to provide the service the client wants, at the right price, while continuing to provide adequate reward for your own people. Merger activity is probably at its highest ever level and looks set to continue. Firms with a clear and coherent strategy, and the ability to implement it, are likely to be the winners.
Oh, and ABS will also help create a far more dynamic market, with well capitalised, aggressive competition.
Such talks tend to be longer on the gloom-laden warnings than on the formulae for success, beyond highlighting the need for rigorous analysis and clear vision if a practice is to identify its own strengths, its clients' present and likely future needs, and the services it should offer in order to meet these. It was interesting to hear Williams' view, however, that there are still many firms who have been hanging on to past ways in the hope or expectation of an upturn which now looks less likely than it did a year ago. As has featured in the legal press, a further round of redundancies is underway among London firms as teams are cut in areas of continuing slack in business.
So what did he have to offer by way of encouragement? There is still great scope for innovative IT-related thinking, he said, going beyond "automating the quill pen" into areas such as intelligent drafting, pricing models, or enabling clients to analyse data on past transactions. The right training of people at more junior levels will enable you to provide the "cheapest level of competence". Look at outsourcing options, whether business process or legal process. Above all, speak to, engage with and understand your clients. They have problems too and you have the opportunity to show that you take an interest in them.
Perhaps reassuringly too, Williams did not see the partnership model as necessarily a thing of the past – provided it enables you to be flexible. The model has to be an evolving one, but clients don't care what your structure is, provided you do the business.
And although many clients are looking for a wider-embracing service from fewer legal panel firms, he believes there is still a role for the boutique-type practice. It comes down to service and price: if you're really good you will still find a place; if not, others will be chosen who can do the same and more.
Finally, the present market, in contrast to a period of growth when everyone has work, offers more of a chance for a firm to really differentiate itself. There is a virtuous circle of "success, excitement, energy, commitment". Investing time and energy in developing relationships across your clients is more important than ever.
Don't say you weren't told.