26 March 2018  | 

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Engaging with clients about their future needs

At a workshop on ‘AI, Blockchain and Legal Services’ in which I participated at the MIT Media Lab in Boston in late October 2017 the CIO of a leading U.S. law firm said, of these emerging trends, that they are “the most significant business opportunity that has been available to law firms in decades, and shame on us for not realising this earlier!”

What he meant was that many clients across a broad range of industries have little idea how their legal needs are going to evolve as currently emerging technological trends unfold, nor where they will source the advice that they need to cope with the changes. This intersects with what in-house counsel have been saying for some time, that they would like their external legal advisors to take a far more proactive role in working with them to identify likely new legal needs that might emerge and assess their implications for their companies.

It is difficult to recall when last industries and indeed markets and societies in general stood on the threshold of such radical change as we are likely to see over the next few years. For law firms who can move beyond the hype (and there is plenty of it – see figure 1 below, for instance) an almost unprecedented opportunity exists to work with clients, to identify likely impacts on their businesses and likely new legal needs that would result. With that information, they can then tailor their service lines and delivery channels to converge with those new needs. In exploring these issues, the emphasis needs to be on uncovering information that is immediately important and strategically actionable, rather than merely interesting. Accurately forecasting emergent client needs is complex, requiring careful assessment. The most transformational will likely emerge not as a consequence of one particular driver, but as a result of several acting in concert. For instance, blockchain and AI and ‘big data’ together instead of any one of the three, individually. This kind of multivariate strategic thinking is especially difficult to do.

Figure 1: Myths abound about super-intelligent AI (defined as AI that is at least as intelligent as humans.) Source: Tegmark, M. 2017. Life 3.0 – Being human in the age of artificial intelligence. Penguin Random House. Page 41. (Max Tegmark is professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

As a firm, Cambridge Strategy Group is keeping a very close watch on these developments, through:

  • As a firm, Cambridge Strategy Group is keeping a very close watch on these developments, through:
  • involvement in the International Bar Association’s ‘Task Force of the Future of Legal Services’
  • participation in other market-leading initiatives such as the MIT Legal Forum
  • hosting our own peer-to-peer learning events, workshops and seminars
  • in-house research and publishing of ‘white papers’

Developing an accurate view of emergent client legal needs cannot be a one-off exercise. In such a dynamic field, things change all the time. One may need frequently to not only fine-tune one’s conclusions but even challenge one’s most basic, underlying assumptions. We can be certain that firms that fail to adapt to the new world that is emerging will, quite quickly, cease to exist. For those that do transition successfully, it is likely that they will find their services in high demand and short supply, reversing some of the pressure on profitability that has dominated law firm strategy over the past decade or more.

Figure 2: Flow chart for a typical client engagement process, aimed at discovering the impact of emergent technologies on that client’s business generally and legal needs in particular, and what the firm’s response should be in order to better meet those needs.

Our services are focused not on telling you what you should do, but on supporting you in developing your own best solutions. Every firm is different and while client needs are similar at a generic level (e.g. by industry sector or practice) every client relationship is also unique. We therefore tailor each engagement to suit your specific circumstances. We seek not only to help you discover what new service lines and delivery channels you need to develop and how your strategy and business model needs to evolve in order to deliver the best performance, but in doing so we also seek to significantly strengthen your relationships with the clients whom you engage.