Boats Against the Current: The Rise of Law Firm Operations Leaders

Nick Quil | November 13, 2017

This year’s Annual Law Firm COO & CFO Forum focused on the ten years of change since the economic crisis of 2007. I had the pleasure of moderating the panel, “Boats Against the Current: The Evolving Law Firm Business Model” that included a diverse panel of c-level executives who explored the changes that have occurred to the law firm business model. Most notable, however, we examined how operations leaders have risen to the occasion and are charting a new course for the c-suite – one that is more directly influencing firm strategy, business development and revenue-generating activities.

Taken from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the quote “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”— and subsequent theme signified the challenges many forward-thinking, transformative leaders face in an industry entrenched in precedent. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the need for change, the inertia of tradition and economic success brings formidable resistance many leaders find themselves needing to push against to progress forward.

Firms unable to navigate the gauntlet of change, however, face a crisis of survival, as we find ourselves in a market so competitive, only the fittest will survive the next wave of economic change. How can leaders help their firms get there? What is the future of the law firm business model?

A fundamental component of the future of the legal industry is to recognize that legal service is no longer solely viewed as expertise delivered only by attorneys. Rather, legal service is coming to mean a strategic combination of legal, technological and process excellence. This shift is elevating the voice of business professionals who are seeking to manage the non-core functions differently and demanding the toppling of internal silos. It is now incumbent upon the current class of transformative business leaders to build the new culture that will enable their firm to successfully leverage their people, processes and technology to deliver higher value to the client. Here are a few key strategies these law firm leaders are enacting to drive change.


The voice of the client

A key takeaway from the panel discussion is that law firm leaders are no longer debating about the need for change, but rather collaborating with clients to embrace change in new and different ways. At the forefront is the client experience – a topic heavily discussed at HBR’s Legal Lab earlier this year – which is influencing service delivery strategies within law firms.

During the panel discussion, we polled the audience on a series of four questions, one of which was, “What level of influence does the voice of the client have on your firm’s overall strategy?” While 50 percent of respondents selected “Informing,” a very close second response was “Driving force of our strategy,” which was selected by 44 percent of attendees.

While panelists agreed that the voice of the client greatly influences their strategy, a key takeaway from the panel was to demonstrate and promote those successes throughout the firm. Panelists shared examples of how they have found success in using their inherent strengths to generate buy-in and deliver value that is greater than what is expected.


Make your back office someone’s front office 

Business professionals are becoming increasingly important in the law firm landscape as firms look for ways to bring new and unique perspectives to shape the firm’s overall strategy, as well support business development efforts. The most successful c-level leaders are adding significant value to client pitches by demonstrating the differentiating operational support that a client will be given; for example, tools or technology that will be shared by the client and law firm.

However, this can only be achieved by operations leaders that have transitioned the critical but not differentiating, non-core elements related to their functions to create capacity to focus on strategic, client-facing activities. While a handful of different business models exist today across the legal landscape, there is a small but growing trend to explore various structures that utilize outside experts to manage those services that fall outside of their core capabilities, allowing c-suite leaders to focus on what matters the most: their clients.

The panel also discussed new experimental models as more law firms are becoming an extension of the client to help them meet their internal corporate goals. Some firms are experimenting with dual entity structures, such as Atrium LLP, which functions like a traditional law firm but the business functions are contracted out to Atrium Legal Technology Services, a venture capital backed entity whose sole customer is Atrium LLP. This model is intended to deliver tech innovation through automating repetitive low-value work and allowing the Firm to deliver speed and cost certainty to clients.


Enable technology to support changes

Efficiency and automation are usually the main drivers behind why many law firms contemplate new technology; however, leading law firms are also considering how new tech can enhance client engagement. The most innovative firms are those that are investing in both new technologies and new ways of working because of the technology. Already, AI-enabled tools are increasing operational efficiencies and automating specific tasks. Blockchain is just beginning to open up a myriad of future ways to streamline and preserve transactions. These technologies offer greater client value, but also enable attorneys to enhance their skills, presenting an unprecedented opportunity to reshape careers and business alike.



In the end, organizational changes should be a part of a strategic plan and these should have measurable components that are reported regularly. It is important to cultivate relationships to minimize roadblocks to the changes that need to happen. The more firms can focus and leverage their strengths to deliver greater value to clients, the more those firms will succeed.

At HBR Consulting, we spend a lot of our time with clients today helping them specifically on getting out of non-core operations and processes, those activities that while critical are not differentiating or adding value to clients or attorneys.