Law Conference 2012 preview
In the original Star Wars film, answering Luke Skywalker’s scepticism about the space-worthiness of his ship the Millennium Falcon (‘What a piece of junk!’), interplanetary smuggler Han Solo reassures the young traveller: ‘She may not look like much but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications myself.’ He’s not wrong.
Traditional law firms and legal departments face a market that is being opened in professional and commercial terms - and like Solo, solicitors attending the Law Conference 2012 this September will be focused on how to make ‘special modifications’ to tools and methods whose antiquated appearance conceals both power and adaptability. The hope is to outrun the opposition, new and old, in a much harder universe.
‘The conference will address the issues affecting the UK’s leading commercial lawyers,’ Law Society vice-president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff (pictured) explains. ‘What impact will new business models have on the legal services market? How can my practice survive and grow in a challenging market? What kind of support will the general counsel of leading businesses expect from their legal advisers in 2013 and beyond? What steps must we take to secure and retain the best talent? What role can and should solicitors play in wider society?’
She reasons: ‘These are the right questions and this is the right event at the right time for the leaders of our top commercial firms and the general counsel of the businesses they serve.’ Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson describes it as ‘an opportunity for us as a sector to collectively look at… how to harness business growth in a tough economy and beyond’.
Innovation in a downturn
Appropriately then, the conference will include sessions on business innovation in a downturn, put new business models under the microscope, examine the changing role of corporate counsel and assess the risks facing practices. Also on offer is time devoted to ‘talent management’, lawyers’ broader contribution to society and growth.
As Mills & Reeve partner Mark Jeffries, who is on the planning committee for the conference, tells the Gazette: ‘We’ve tried to create a conference to help law firms improve their business, and to compete in a challenging environment.’ To that end, Jeffries notes, speakers who have dealt with a changed environment in other sectors will bring their wider experience to the conference. Among those offering that perspective will be Virgin Galactic’s former president Will Whitehorn.
Closer to the legal sector home, speakers joining panels where their business thinking can face the cross-examination of their peers include Michael Napier, former chairman of Irwin Mitchell - a firm that has openly supported, and will seek, external investment in law firms. In the same session, Co-operative Legal Services’ by-then former managing director Eddie Ryan will also be on the panel. The first ‘large’ ABS to be licensed, CLS recently announced plans to create 3,000 jobs.
There is nothing new in the need to manage a legal practice’s risks. But technical progress, outcomes-focused regulation and the tough economic environment have further increased the need for legal leaders to reassess their approach to it. TLT Solicitors senior partner Robert Bourns, another member of the organising committee, explains: ‘In addition to the obvious need to look at the risks contained in different structures, private practice and in-house departments are now having to engage with the risks that come from exporting data between jurisdictions, for example.’
Organisers are keen to stress the significance of plenary sessions that involve in-house counsel and private practice. Jeffries notes that a key draw of attending for him will be the ‘opportunity to talk through some of these issues with the impressive general counsel who were in on the conference’s planning calls’.
That ‘partnership’ in debate is an approach that speaker Sandie Okoro, general counsel at Barings, supports. And as Okoro has previously told the Gazette, in-house lawyers are changing who they instruct and on what terms: ‘There are clear signs that corporate clients’ spending patterns are changing, with spending shifting to in-house departments, and to silver circle and mid-tier law firms. One way for magic circle firms to fight for market share would be to find ways of offering clients some services in a way that meets their changed expectations on price.’
As her own session, ‘The role of the GC in the future’, makes clear, legal departments are also facing big strategic decisions and need to answer fundamental questions about their role and purpose. Joining Okoro on the platform will be general counsel from Siemens Ben Sherman, and BG Group’s executive vice-president.
Law Conference 2012: on the agenda
- Business innovation and surviving the downturn
- New business models
- The future role of general counsel
- Business risk
- Talent management
- The broader contribution of lawyers to UK society
- The world in 2050
Planning for growth
While the 2012 conference has a corporate feel to it, Bourns stresses the programme does not have a size-specific target. ‘When I was managing partner of my firm, we had seven partners,’ he says (TLT now has 68). ‘Whatever size you are, the core questions are the same - what skills are required in the successful law firm of the future?’
For all practices, Bourns insists, there is an increasing emphasis on business skills and strategic vision. He also notes that, even in a downturn, legal leaders ‘have an obligation to plan for growth’. He suggests firms need to be willing to borrow ideas widely - from each other, and from other sectors, to ‘preserve professional integrity, defend margins, look at service delivery, and how work is resourced’.
The broader contribution lawyers should make to society is an important part of that ‘future’, the conference’s architects insist - and that will be the focus of a plenary session led by Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti. Hudson concludes: ‘A lot of the issues that will be discussed at the Law Conference 2012 will be what is on the minds of many lawyers in England and Wales and beyond. In a year of such great change for our sector, it is timely that these topics form the basis of the Conference.’
- Law Conference 2012 will be held at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales from 20-22 September. Book a place.