Law firms should seek to innovate to keep up with new competitors rather than focusing on defensive regulation.
As law firms face a wave of non-traditional competitors - from unregulated will-writers to big accountancy firms and paid McKenzie friends – it is natural to cite regulation, or rather uneven regulation, as being part of the problem.
That is understandable when the playing field seems less than balanced. Many emerging competitors are relatively unshackled by the costs and restrictions binding solicitors and barristers.
But the legal profession is not alone in its predicament. At this year's CBI conference the heads of two businesses facing threats from less heavily regulated competitors - Royal Mail and Whitbread (the owner of Premier Inn) - made just this argument.
Royal Mail has long complained about being hit by competitors unconstrained by its universal service obligation, requiring it to deliver letters to the whole of the UK, while rivals can ‘cherry pick’ the most profitable sections.
Meanwhile Premier Inn, like other hotel operators, is not happy about the emergence of ‘disruptor’ Airbnb which enables travellers to save money by staying in the spare rooms or homes of people who may not be paying business rates - or staff a minimum wage.
At the conference, Moya Greene, the chief executive of Royal Mail, and Andy Harrison, chief executive of Whitbread, both stressed the need to lobby regulators to try and keep up with innovation in the market place to ensure there was a level playing field.
And I’m sure many solicitors can sympathise with their position. But sometimes rather than blaming outside factors we would do better to look at how markets have fundamentally changed and how established players can respond.
When Greene and Harrison started to sound more convincing was when they turned to how their businesses should be better at innovating. Harrison said it was important to hire people who were adept at new technology who would be able to think like the ‘disruptors’.
Meanwhile Greene pointed that an advantage enjoyed by Royal Mail: it has the resources needed to take a risk and launch new products. ‘We have the conditions to be good innovators. But we just need to drive this to the top,’ she said.
And much like Whitbread and Royal Mail, law firms too need to appreciate that they must move with the times. (Even at the Gazette we have evolved from being a weekly print publication to a daily electronic one, with if anything a smaller payroll.) Yes, regulation could be better at keeping up with the market. But whatever regulators do, the world is changing and competitors are not going to disappear.