This is a common question on law application forms and in interviews. Effectively it is a commercial awareness question. What is happening which affects the legal profession generally and the practice to which you are applying in particular?
The question can be framed in a number of different ways:
How can we remain competitive in a challenging business world?
In the changing legal landscape what would you advise us to do to retain our market share?
What are the biggest threats to our practice?
Broadly all these questions are looking for the same thing. A knowledge of what could threaten the firm’s profitability and some thoughts on how to secure reliable fee income into the future.
What threats are there?
- The rise of AI
- Alternative business structures
- Reductions in the availability of legal aid
- Cyber crime
- Downwards pressure on fee income
I could go on… and on. You just need to identify one or two which are relevant to the kind of practice to which you are applying and think about how to minimise the risk which arises. Here are my tips on what to consider as you plan your answer.
This has to be your first consideration. Writing about the changes to the provision of Legal Aid in an application to a City law firm tends to demonstrate that you haven’t quite understood the market in which the firm operates. Big City law firms do not offer Legal Aid to their clients!
Similarly small high street practices are unlikely to be losing too much sleep about the extent to which they should invest in AI and the timing of any purchase. They won’t have the money to make an investment because their business has probably been significantly affected by the Legal Aid changes! Big City firms will be much more concerned to watch the development of AI. Invest too heavily, too soon, while the technology is developing very quickly and they could find that they have bought expensive systems which become obsolete too quickly. Invest after firms chasing the same work as them and they could find that they cannot be competitive in their charging rates.
I have suggested in a previous blog that writing about Brexit isn’t necessarily a good ploy. Brexit represents a pretty clear risk to any law firms advising international businesses. Unfortunately what’s obvious to you, is probably obvious to a few thousand other students writing applications for the same jobs. Pity the poor graduate recruiters who have to read your applications and help them to stay awake (and sane?) by avoiding the subject. An answer which is more original is always going to attract more interest – unless, of course, you’ve gone too far down the line of being weird and wacky. Law firms tend to be quite traditional, finding a way of writing about the marine threat of micro plastics and trying to make this relevant would be quite niche and unsuitable for most law firms!
Show you understand financial reality
All law firms are facing downwards pressure on fees. They need to work smarter to try to deliver the same profits per partner. So what does this mean? For some top firms, particularly perhaps some of the US firms in London it might mean narrowing their practice areas to cut out all work which does not have the right profit margin. They may turn away work and recommend other firms for some aspects of a transactional deal. In order to do that they need enormous confidence in their own name and brand. There is always going to be a risk that the slightly smaller firm might be able to handle the whole transaction satisfactorily for the client at lower cost and win future business.
All law firms have to make sure that all work is done at the most economic level. Can they make use of case management systems, paralegals, legal assistants, apprentices? Can offices be moved to less expensive locations? How can they open up new revenue streams and build and maintain client loyalty? The smaller the law firm the more they are likely to want you to show your understanding of all this. They don’t have the luxury of being able to make an investment in you during the period of your training contract and not expect any returns on that investment. How can you make a difference to the business from the very start of your time?
Shaun Jardine of Midlands firm Brethertons had some really good insights into this when he came onto the Warwick campus last year. Here’s a list of websites he suggested that students might browse.
Well worth a look. It might put you ahead of the game and help you answer the question in a particularly insightful way.