Sudhir Mishra

The author is Founder and Managing Partner, Trust Legal

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In COVID Times, The Lawyer’s Client Is Really A Customer

While independent advocates face economic hardships and trouble in paying salaries of staff and in meeting expenses as litigation is on a standstill, the bigger firms take huge pay cuts at the top level to strive. In such circumstances, where both the extremes face big problems, those sailing in the mid-sea are in a better position to meet their expenses, shield their staff and employees and deliver to their clients.

The mesmerizing Mr. Parag  P. Tripathi, a Senior  Advocate for two decades, had told me often that ‘the genuine sense of humor alone will distinguish you in the legal profession’. With just this advice in mind and no coattails to hang on to or family support either, I started my law office on my decade-old Priya scooter in 2000.

After years of toil, at least in a few practices, we have earned a stellar leadership reputation. Today the best companies and law firms from across the world hire us. With the Covid-19 storm brewing over the world, however, our pace and peace to have been disrupted. We are all gasping for breath and fighting for survival in this new crisis, which a nation like Great Britain describes as the lowest economic position in 300 years.

With the economy hospitalized and businesses bleeding, the only medication that can help the business recover are ground-breaking structural reforms that one undertakes. These changes will redefine all the existing professional relationships too. Businesses will be looking out for specialized legal services on the issues they face from the best among the competent and at the most competitive cost, owing to a shrinking budget and a sinking feeling.

All the existing law firms and legal services retainers of the companies will be tested qua these bedrock criteria laid down by the businesses. Like every other relationship, the ones built on mutual trust, perseverance, and resilience will survive the test of time. The legal profession will not remain untouched by this new relationship paradigm. As some experts say, “Clients will increasingly become customers and will buy their services in a way they buy other services in their lives”. And the customer compares all the possible options and finalizes the best products/services with all the desired features at the bare minimum cost, just like the popular advertisement for hotel room booking, featuring actor Alia Bhatt, where she mocks the other character for paying a much higher price for the same category of room in the same hotel.

The same will happen in the legal industry with increased scrutiny of legal budgets by corporates of all shapes. Clients will not be willing to pay for the law firm managing partner’s great grandfathers’ pen at the reception or an M. F. Hussain painting in the conference rooms of these large law firms. He will be under pressure to pay modest charges in the new dynamic, yet evolving legal services market.

With the change in role from a client to a customer, the demands and expectations of the newly evolved customer will be different from that of the earlier too-busy client. The power equations will change remarkably. As it is said, the customer is King and the King dictates the terms of the market.

In the times ahead, as businesses struggle to revive, they will be faced with a number of issues and compliance, most of them being legal due to the new world order. The need for legal professionals will rise exponentially, as the legal profession’s core role is indeed, to support and facilitate activities of society, including commercial activity, while protecting the rights and welfare of its members.

At the same time, the client will find it difficult to pay for the same services at the existing unchecked, exorbitant cost and there the customer will take up the task of looking out for the “best choice”. The flooding of the internet with webinars by all small and big firms everywhere in this lockdown situation seems like an attempt to showcase specialty and knowledge, but at the same time, it sends a signal of a Mayday alarm for help to hire the professional services offered.

As the power dynamics are evolving, and the ball being in the court of the client/customer, the focus will be most on the cost-effectiveness of the legal services provided. Competitive cost will be the defining factor. The customer will be picking up the best package with all the features at the most cost-efficient value. The bills will now be carefully scrutinised. The customer will be treating equals equally. The firms projecting the same award in different fields would be treated equally by the customer, for instance the IBLJ award, where two firms who won the same award in different categories serve the client at highly differentiated cost. The client is most likely to go for the firm which offers the same services in a third of the billing hour of other firms, and is more generous and thankful in its approach towards the client.

Collaboration, agility, experience, speciality, results, competency, perseverance, integrity and trust will drive the buy-sell dynamic, not pedigree and provenance. Professional relationships will now be built on the foundation of mutual trust, respect and gratitude for each other.

This health crisis, which has propelled an unprecedented economic crisis in centuries, has knocked our door with not one, but multiple icebergs and the decades-old attitudinal hardwired practice of law will find it difficult to sail in these times, and is likely to meet the fate of the legendry Titanic if the multiple downturn icebergs are not avoided. But the smaller super-skilled law firms are a safer bet and can bypass these icebergs and find their way through them, as they are more open to reform. Those who can gratuitously ride on these reform boats have a fairly high chance of surviving these rather prolonged, stormy waters.

The issue that bigger law firms face is also that they tend to lose too many of their people, who find their way to other firms or newer firms. This creates skepticism in the minds of the client. Smaller firms, on the other hand, tend to keep their key personnel intact, which creates better trust and coordination in the legal professional, client, and firm.

The industry will accelerate its gradual transformation to a multidisciplinary, integrated, platform-driven, capitalized, data-based, problem-solving, customer-centric marketplace all around the world. The business and profession of law, after all, reflect the needs and trends of society as a whole and will adapt to serve those needs in whatever ways are necessary. Adapting new tools, technology, and the mechanism will become crucial. Here the smaller firms will also have to spend more and catch up with big law firms as they have the leverage to adapt to new technology.

While independent advocates face economic hardships and trouble in paying salaries of staff and in meeting expenses as litigation is on a standstill, the bigger firms take huge pay cuts at the top level to strive. In such circumstances, where both the extremes face big problems, those sailing in mid-sea are in a better position to meet their expenses, shield their staff and employees and deliver to their clients.

The point here is not to predict the future but to show that this Corona International Live Event has the potential to serve as a societal inflection point, in addition to serving as a trend accelerant. To safeguard ourselves from the virus, it is imperative that we reboot the existing system and upgrade to the humbler version, as the older feudal version will soon become outdated and the support to the historical version will sooner or later be replaced by the new agile, humane, legal service provider.

Needless to say, those who reap the best out of the situation will be the ones who are faster in adapting to these changing times. But one thing is for certain ‒ that these times will go down in history. And only if we knew what the future holds for us, will we be able to make better decisions today. But as it is said, if decisions were made in hindsight, fools would rule this world. The tie from Milan, the Gucci from Paris, will alone not decide the “effect” of the law firm on a client, but practicing thankfulness, humility, gratitude and a captivating a dose of humour along with practicing law, certainly will.

(Author: Sudhir Mishra is an advocate and Founder and Managing Partner, Trust Legal House; )

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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