Over the past 30 years, larger law firms in Australia have had to make only two major strategic decisions:  whether to become a national firm and how, and  whether to become an international firm and how?
They now have to make a third.
The 2017 Peer Monitor data leaves little doubt that technology is changing the practice and business of law and that firms need a clear and coherent strategic response. Firms might decide to be pioneers investing in lawtech start-ups, teaching their lawyers how to code and experimenting with new cognitive technologies. Other firms might prefer to keep their powder dry and wait to see what works, which platforms take hold, and what their clients prefer. Either way, an active choice needs to be made. Each comes with their own risks and opportunities.
A key challenge in investing in a new way is that the current core business is still very successful. The 2017 Peer Monitor data suggests that despite a flat market overall, a fair number of firms are still making healthy profits. The challenge comes in balancing the old with the new.
One way for firms to address this balance is to think about strategy as two parallel streams: one being Exploit and the other Explore (based on the work of O’Reilly and Tushman). Exploit refers to efforts to leverage current strengths and capabilities to make the current core business as good as it can be. Explore refers to new exploratory and experimentation efforts that will hopefully bear fruit in the future.
One approach is to make the whole firm ambidextrous, that is, change the firm’s culture so that everyone embraces Explore AND Exploit in their everyday work and client interactions. An alternative approach is to keep the Explore and Exploit far from each other and avoid cross-contamination. In this instance, Exploit is the cash cow and hires the suits, and Explore is a cash burner and hires the black skivvies. A third approach is to try to do both.
In an environment of rapid change and hyper-competition, every firm needs a healthy portfolio of both Exploit and Explore initiatives. A genuine commitment to Explore will most likely mean substantial changes to the firm’s dividend policy and capital structure. Firm governance and structural arrangements are also likely to be impacted, as will marketing, pricing, IT, operations and HR.
The role of managing partners is to lead the thinking around these issues and prepare the firm for its third really big strategic decision.