To paraphrase Marcel Proust, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.
A focus group of your best clients could be your best guide to seeing, understanding, and becoming a "law firm of the future."
In my more than 20 years advising law firms about how to plan for the future, I have noticed that many lawyers -- perhaps even most of them -- have great difficulty visualizing and understanding the future of their practices in tangible, actionable terms.
This is to be expected. As lawyers, we can listen with great interest as pundits and gurus talk about the future of the legal profession; and we can take on board, at a theoretical level at least, their exciting and sometimes scary messages. But many of us still don't know what to do tomorrow morning to start moving toward that future.
I suppose that part of our problem comes from our training as lawyers, with its emphasis on precedent and aligning known facts within predefined intellectual frameworks (a.k.a. "the law"). Part of it might be due to our caution about risk, which usually is a mandatory part of sound legal advice.
This is why two of the biggest challenges for the Walker Clark "futures practice" are to break down the paradigms that prevent our clients from seeing the future -- and sometimes even today -- clearly, and to stimulate genuinely innovative responses to its implications for their practice of law.
three rough spots in the road to the future
Embedded in that last sentence are three key points, each of which could produce a treatise by itself.
Paradigms: Even to perceive the future of the legal profession, much less actually to understand it, we must be willing to escape many of the paradigms that have shaped the practice of law for centuries, and which can prevent us from seeing new realities. As futurist Joel Barker has said, "The role of leadership is to find, recognize, and secure the future."
Genuinely innovative responses: Most of what passes for "innovation" in the legal profession is little more than adjustments to the status quo. These might work well for a while, but they usually do not respond to the basic changes in client expectations and the nature of the competition, which are shaping the future.
For their practice of law: In an era of shifting paradigms and growing intolerance of fake innovation, it is natural to look for and cling to so-called "best practices" or academic models for strategic planning. Although there is much to be learned from the business world outside the legal profession, as well as from the academic perspectives, each law firm is a unique system. These intellectual frameworks can be very useful and sometimes lead to important insights; but the most effective responses to the challenges of the future usually are the ones that honestly and squarely address the economics, professional culture, and competitive context of each law firm.
how client focus groups can help
In a fast-changing and increasingly competitive legal profession, change without client input is folly. Not to involve clients in a serious, significant way is to guess at the future, not to plan for it.
We believe that a well-designed, professionally facilitated focus group of a firm's best clients can be an excellent start to a better understanding of what their law firm must do to "find, recognize, and secure" its unique future. Clients are usually the first to spot changing paradigms for legal services, because they are experiencing similar paradigm shifts themselves. They see the world with different eyes. To paraphrase the Scottish poet Robert Burns, they can give us the gift "to see ourselves as others see us."
As law firm clients become more and more sophisticated, and must themselves innovate in order to remain competitive, they are usually better able to distinguish true innovation in legal services from changes that never really get beyond the slogan stage.
Only a client can intelligently discuss the implications of change for their special, and sometimes unique, relationship with his or her law firm. The ability of a law firm to meet that client's unique set of needs and expectations are what will shape his or her future decisions about which lawyer or law firm, from among the many excellent competitors in the market, to select for his or her most important legal matters.
Using client focus groups at the start of the planning process, to help find and recognize the future of the law firm, is something of a paradigm shift itself. Traditionally, most law firms would work hard on a new strategic plan, often without any meaningful client input at all. Then, only as the final step, would roll it out to their clients, usually as a finished -- and unfortunately too often, an irrelevant -- product. A well-designed, professionally facilitated focus group can eliminate that risk. To be sure, it is not the only way to bring client views into the planning process; but it is especially effective when trying to understand the future of the firm and its legal markets more than five years from now from the clients' perspectives.
Better than ourselves, it is often our clients who first see our world with new eyes.
"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is..." (Marcel Proust, Remembrances of Things Past, Book 5: The Prisoner, published 1923.)