Dramatic changes in the legal sector are being driven by its troubled ‘middle market’, the Global Law Summit heard this morning in a session titled ‘The future of the legal profession’.

Thomson Reuters’ president legal, Susan Taylor Martin, said that for many firms in that echelon, ‘the pain of staying where you are is greater than change’. Elite firms, she noted, are not currently experiencing the same pressures on profitability.

To succeed, Taylor Martin added, midmarket firms would have to give greater power and rewards to non-lawyers. ‘Currently, the lawyers have the power, and the non-lawyers have the solutions,’ she observed.

Allen & Overy’s global senior partner David Morley signalled that elite firms also had to respond to pressures being most keenly felt in the mid-market. Morley confirmed that clients were demanding more choice, alluding to the firm’s decision to provide ‘seed funding’ for projects that sought to deliver legal services in a different way.

Successes cited by Morley included automated online services allowing clients to establish cross-border requirements for share-trade declarations by answering basic questions - providing an adequate answer in 91% of cases - and the firm’s 400-employee legal services centre in Belfast.

To lead and deliver such services, Morley said, it was necessary to recruit - and adequately reward - skilled non-lawyers. Lawyers were wrong, he added, to think the problems experienced by the legal profession arising form the 2008 financial crisis were ‘cyclical’. ‘The cyclical elements have worked their way out,’ Morley said, showing changes to which the profession had to respond to be ‘structural’.

All speakers said the impetus for commercial law firms to change came from general counsel who were demanding legal services that met their need to do more for less. General counsel, Taylor Martin noted, were willing to source legal services from a much greater variety of providers than was the case in the past.  

At the start of the session, a presentation by legal futurologist Richard Susskind (pictured) said that litigators were the ‘most aggressive’ lawyers when resisting efforts to ‘decompose’ elements of their practice into tasks that could be completed by a wider range of providers.

Susskind said law firms such as US outfit Seyfarth Law, which had implemented such ‘decomposition’ and then sourced legal services in more varied ways, had realised cost savings of 30-40%.