In an age of disruption, BigLaw or traditional large law firms face increasing competition from rapidly evolving NewLaw providers. But what does NewLaw actually mean, and how do these firms differ from their more traditional competitors?

Coined in 2013 by Eric Chin formerly of Beaton Capital, the term describes a burgeoning category of alternative legal service providers that sets itself apart from BigLaw or TradLaw providers in the following key ways.

Using new or disruptive technologies

While the provision of traditional legal services is predicated largely on high-quality legal ability, NewLaw providers seek to couple that legal nous with innovative, client-focused delivery methods that utilise cutting-edge IT and process innovation.

Investing in tech products to deliver greater intra-business or B2B connectivity, communication, practice management, cost reductions and process efficiencies are hallmarks of NewLaw providers.

Right now, we’re talking about cloud-based computing and storage systems, team-based workflow or task-oriented apps, and using data analytics to improve scoping, efficiencies and outcomes. But as the legal industry continues to change with the growth of digital, we’ll see the likes of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence increasingly used in the practice of law.

NewLaw providers are characterised by a willingness to innovate. But as Marcus McCarthy of Nexus Law Group writes in Lawyers Weekly: “Disruption must produce better outcomes or it isn’t innovation. Real innovation delivers better outcomes for both client and lawyer. Many NewLaw businesses benefit one, but not both.

“True disruption comes from re-engineering the structure of the law firm itself, not tinkering at the edges or pretending to be something new using old structures and thought processes.”

Encouraging flexible working

In the past, BigLaw firms were structured in the manner of a high-overhead pyramid, with a core number of partners supported by a larger cohort of associates and lawyers, all charging clients at hourly rates. The more hours spent on a matter, the greater the charge.

A key differentiator of the NewLaw model – which remote-working technology enables – is the matching of a lean, low-overhead, highly skilled legal team with the client’s specific requirements.

Through a focus on greater client communication and needs-matching, a NewLaw provider can offer its own staff the ability to work flexibly, giving rise to greater job satisfaction and work-life balance. Clients get a team with the right skill set for the job, optimising outcomes and costs.

Flexible, client-focused service provision is the norm

In a more complex and globalised business environment, with a geographically diverse workforce, sophisticated clients demand better value, more transparency and better service from their lawyers.

The Australian legal market is now very much client-centric. NewLaw firms stand out in their ability to let the client choose to pay for the services they think they need, rather than purchasing a lawyer’s full services over the course of a case.

Offering alternative pricing strategies

Another key differentiator of the NewLaw model is doing away with the traditional billable hour, offering clients alternative pricing structures such as blended rates, volume or value-based billing, fixed pricing or risk-reward billing.

It’s basically this: commercially-savvy clients are no longer willing to pay top dollar for low-level, repetitive work that could benefit from more cost-effective outsourcing arrangements, or greater automation in a law firm.

Alternative fee structures therefore offer greater perceived certainty, value, benefits and efficiency than the traditional model of billing based on hours and volume of ‘manpower’. A NewLaw firm knows this, and adapts accordingly.

Increased flexibility and agility

The key takeaway is that the above elements of a NewLaw provider can be applied to a BigLaw firm.

The Australian legal market is seeing declining growth, revenues and employed lawyer numbers, so BigLaw providers need to rethink the way they are structured and their take-up of disruptive technologies – that is, they need to rethink the very way they do business.

The recently released 2016 Australia: State of the Legal Market report by the Melbourne Law School and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor® highlights a shift in the Australian legal sphere that traditional law firms can no longer ignore.

As the report suggests, law firm success in an age of disruption will require a combination of ability, stability, affinity and agility. Law firms need to master the means to sense relevant changes in client and competitor arenas, identify creative options, make good commercial choices and adapt to meet new needs and realise new opportunities. These are all key factors to ongoing success and survival.

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