by Uchechi Anyanele

Introduction

The 21st century began on 1 January 2001 and will end on 31 December 2100; it is the 1st century in the 3rd millennium.[1] The 1st years of the 21st century have so far been marked by rise in a global economy (international exchange of goods and services expressed in monetary units), consumerism (pursuit of “the good life”), and an increase in the power of private enterprise (innovation and entrepreneurship). It is  projected that as the 21st century progresses, digital revolution will continue with increasing use of social technology—Millennials and Generation Z (Post-Millennials), both comfortable with technology and with interacting on social media, will come of age and rise to prominence in this century.

What is a 21st Century Law Firm?

With the events characterizing the first 18 years of the 21st century, and the projections in digital revolution enumerated above, we could say that a 21st-century law firm is one with capacity to meet socio-legal demands of a world or society where these projections and issues are manifest. This is the type of law firm that will thrive well into the 3rd millennium and beyond. Yes, modern, global, digital, with less adherence to traditional or conventional wisdom and practice. A firm that is value-driven with focus on efficiency–efficiency driven by technology.

A truly 21st-century law firm will be ready to embrace positive change and substitute traditional standards with innovative standards of practice. While the services of many lawyers are appreciated, what reputation do lawyers traditionally have? Making processes complex especially in writing and dealing with disputes; letting professional ego and desire to ‘earn a fee’ get in the way of dispute resolution or speedy service delivery (even in issues for which the services of a lawyer may not be required). This is not the way of a 21st-century law firm.

 

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Challenges in Building a 21st Century Law Firm

  1. Litigation-oriented Law Business and Practice: Litigation has formed the historical background of legal practice in Nigeria; so being litigious can be a thing for many lawyers. But these days, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) techniques are becoming more popular for resolving disputes. Most entrepreneurial millennials do not generally have the patience for litigious processes that typically stretch for so long. They need speedy results.
  1. Lack of Proficiency or Skills in Information and Communication Technology (ICT): The relative lack of ICT skills in the legal industry in Nigeria is a challenge. When lawyers fail to catch up with trends in technology which impact legal practice, they can only be left behind in time. Knowledge and proficiency in ICT has now literally become a mandatory requirement in the 21st-century legal marketplace. ICT is not only essential for legal research but also running law business such as facilitating convenient communication with clients.[2] The use of ICT also promotes efficiency through speedy completion of work and saves cost. When lawyers fail to catch up with trends in technology which impact legal practice, they can be left behind.
  1. Lack of Proper Business Structure amongst Law Firms: Most law firms in Nigeria do not have a business model, client acquisition strategy, structure, data storage and accounting standards, which are all essentials of a business.[3] Perhaps our law schools and faculties should begin to teach the business side of the law (outdated fee accounting).[4]
  1. Increasing Clients’ Need for a New Approach towards How Law Firms Charge Fees: Globally, clients now want service that drives value and creates a better experience for them as consumers of legal services. In Nigeria, ‘fee-earning staff’ and ‘hourly billing’ standards are not prevalent in many law firms; this is not a bad thing. For large law firms in New York for instance, it has been noted[5] that some clients now ‘attack’ the fee arrangement that law firms use for legal services. Over time, trends worth watching include alternative fee arrangements, increased amount of work being taken in-house, increasing reliance on technology, and the rise of smaller firms as legitimate alternatives to large law firms. Alternative fee arrangements which clients now push for include measuring a service’s value against a desired result rather than a time or material-based approach. Yes, even in Nigeria, clients now question fees and seek alternative arrangements.
  1. Outdated Rules of Professional Conduct: For example, the rule which places premium on clients’ briefing a lawyer in his law office[6] has no place in the practice of a value-driven 21st-century law firm, especially with the advent of virtual law offices.
  1. General Conservative Attitude to Marketing: It is common to hear some say that a lawyer should not advertise. This is a gross misreading of the law. The Rules have not said that a lawyer cannot advertise. It says that “a lawyer may engage in any advertising or promotion in connection with his practice of the law” subject to the provisos and a condition that the advertising is fair and proper.[7] Twenty first-century law firms, like proper businesses, should not ignore the importance of marketing their services so that clients can find them, offline and online. There are various approaches to achieving this which would not breach professional ethics.[8]
  1. Absence of Corporate Best Practices in Management and Labour amongst Many Law Firms in Nigeria: The 21st-century law firm must recognize the importance of labour laws, psychology, and emotional intelligence in law business, for internal relations within the firm and external relations with clients, government agencies, and other professionals in various industries. Law firms are also urged to hire for skill sets like leadership, project management, business acumen, social networking, and emotional intelligence, not only legal knowledge.[9] It takes some serious leadership skills to recruit the best millennials and retain them in your 21st-century law firm.

Opportunities for Young Lawyers

Image Source: thePentLawHouse

  1. Many young lawyers are not of the litigious disposition. They are in a unique position to empathize with clients and come up with innovative ways to fix clients’ problems or prevent them. This is an asset for a value-driven approach to law practice. A lot of young lawyers also love to meet new people and network. They have interests outside of the legal profession, which can be good for creating relationships with existing and potential clients on some level.
  1. Many young lawyers in the country are Millennials and this provides a great opportunity for law firms to leverage on Millennials’ techie abilities. These Millennials are generally quick to figure out how ‘techie’ things work – some by simply playing around with gadgets and software; for others once they’re shown how things work, they quickly pick it up and run with it enthusiastically. Such young lawyers always come in handy. Also, this generation is generally comfortable with use of social technology, which is a veritable marketing tool. This is unlike older ones who may not be tech-inclined; there are just a few exceptions. Many still insist on ‘hard copy’ of almost everything. In this sphere, young lawyers can be catalysts for legal innovation in law firms; the rest will be up to management.
  1. Because some upcoming entrepreneurs resort to smaller firms as legitimate alternatives to large law firms, young lawyers can benefit from setting up their law business. Advantages of a small firm include flexible fee arrangements for the client (Fair bills not discounts, please!), and the young lawyer’s capacity to earn more money.
  1. To cut operational cost, young lawyers can set up virtual law firms. Virtual Lawyers harness remote IT access and flexible working hours to provide competitive services; though they may meet with clients face-to-face when needed. The advantages of a virtual law firm include lower operational cost for office space or personnel, increased productivity with no wasted time in commuting and expense, ability to work from anywhere in the world, and flexible hours.[10]

Wrapping It Up

A law firm that does not cultivate the value-delivery standard of practice will likely fail, as market forces of demand for and supply of legal services eventually gang up against static and inflexible firms. For young lawyers, this is your century. The challenges are  surmountable; the opportunities are exciting. Take it.

 

Uchechi Anyanele practices law in Lagos, Nigeria. Outside her legal work, she enjoys proofreading written text and absorbing musical lyrics.

[1] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/21st_century> accessed 10 April 2018

[2] John Unachukwu, ‘What Young Lawyers Need to Survive’ thenationonlineng.net (Nigeria, 18 July 2017) accessed on 8 April 2018

[3] Arese Ugwu, Smart Money Woman (Troubador Publishing Limited, 2016) 242

[4] Roger Barton, ‘Square Pegs, Round Holes: Does the Traditional Law Firm Business Model Fit the Needs of Clients, or Even Most Lawyers, Anymore?’ (2017) Westlaw Journal Professional Liability 1

[5] Op cit, 2

[6] Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007, r.22

[7] Op cit, r.39(1)

[8] Frank Ramos and John Remson jr., Attorney Marketing 101 (FDDC 2017) 83

[9] Camille Stell, ‘Building a 21st Century Law Practice’ (30 November 2016) <www.lawyersmutualnc.com/risk-management-resources/articles> accessed 11 April 2018

[10] LexisPSL, ‘Law Firms of the Future – Virtual Lawyers’ (12 October 2017) <blogs.lexisnexis.co.uk/futureoflaw/2017/10> accessed 11 April 2018

About the author

Nigerian Law Today

NLT’s mission is to take legal-content writing to the next level in Nigeria by leveraging legal expertise and technology. We publish fresh, original, and insightful articles on areas of law we cover.

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