This is the second part of a series of posts looking at the future of law firms outside of the well trodden topic of AI.
In my first post, I looked at increasing diversification in law firm structures, and whether the Partnership law firm structure is robust enough to survive increasing competition from legal service business structures with lower overheads.
In this post, I look at whether we could see a move away from the established practise of dragging our labour to our local business premises. Could we come to our labour instead?
Is there an alternative to the tried and tested?
Labour dynamics at law firms have not changed significantly for many years – valued support staff often recruited from the local area, higher cost lawyers and specialist staff recruited nationwide to achieve the best possible candidates for the relevant role (who may be offered a relocation package), and staff living within the catchment area of usually central or business park located premises who face the daily fight to and from the work-place, and high cost housing.
Could there be much variation to this tried and tested labour practise? Could we ask our recruitment agents to look further afield, say Africa, to recruit the staff we need? And could these recruits work for us in their country of origin? Surely that would be impossible. But why wouldn’t that work?
Recruitment and managing staff within existing business premises may at first sight seem like one of those old ways of doing things can’t be changed for the better, or even be changed at all. How could remote staff be supervised and how would sensitive work be managed?
Why look further afield?
Many countries have both a large number of English speaking lawyers and a legal system that is not completely different to the UK, mainly because of that colonial past.
A not inconsiderable number of international lawyers attend British law schools on student visas and then return to their countries of origin. I’m thinking of the students I met on my CPE and LPC course (over ten years ago) who are from Trinidad, India and Nigeria, and returned to their countries of origin to practice law.
What are the issues with managing overseas staff?
With the right security, supervision and regulatory oversight in place (I’m not forgetting the application of the SRA’s overseas practice rules), there is nothing to prevent UK law firms from recruiting lawyers who both live and work overseas.
Office space, staff salaries and admin costs could be considerably cheaper for an office in say Port of Spain, Trinidad, compared to Portsmouth, UK. Electronic files can be shared internationally with the right secure IT solutions. Face-to-face client meetings with clients can be conducted in the UK if required, with the remainder of work completed overseas.
Could this be appropriate for a small law firm?
We no longer need to be a large law firm to consider taking such a seemingly onerous step of recruiting overseas staff. Areas of potential practice could be any UK or international area of law – and the right international staff may have experience or at least the potential to deal with legal matters in both their country of residence and in the UK.
Likewise, with appropriate measures in place to ensure the confidentiality of data, we could also be recruiting support staff overseas.
None of this can be achieved at the drop of a hat, but with increasing globalisation of the legal market and labour combined with increasing competition in the UK, we could see many more UK law firms, both small and large with either overseas based staff and/or an office.
What about the effect on the local workforce?
Is it a sin to recruit overseas staff? It could be a shame to turn over a capable local member of staff for an overseas based staff member, however this need not happen. A profitable overseas based staff doesn’t need to result in less recruitment in the UK, but it could present new opportunities for overseas based staff which would otherwise not be recruited in the UK due to lack of profit, or concern over cash flow risks.
The end result of some careful overseas office or recruitment planning could see some much-needed business diversification without resulting in a strain on cash-flow or excessive risk. If we are operating in a highly competitive market with high overheads and small profit margins, looking overseas for labour solutions in order to maintain a healthy lower risk and diverse business could be the way forward for tomorrow’s small to medium sized law firms.