Shifts in time

In 1996, Clifford Chance, the top UK law firm by revenue made £282m. Not bad until you realise it made nearly £1.4bn in 2016 together with six other firms that smashed the £1bn mark in the same year. But 20 years back Palm Pilots were just coming out. BlackBerry devices were still on the drawing board and Apple was in a severe financial crisis threatening its survival. It sounds outlandish. But then again, this was a time when we all still used phone boxes.

Global financial upheaval and technological innovation have since provided the context for a plethora of law firm mergers, forays into new markets overseas as well as fresh entrants into the UK market offering alternative legal business models.

For business services professionals in law, 1996 was the dawn of a transformation – one that continues to shape the future of law.

Business services in a changing legal profession


Twenty years ago, law firms were just starting to appoint directors of marketing. We have since watched marketing and BD, finance, IT and HR expanding into sophisticated departments comprising both generalists and specialists, and taking on much broader, often global remits at a strategic level.

Today, it is the norm to see business experts, from increasingly broad industry backgrounds, becoming chief executives, COOs and board-level directors. We recently took a snapshot of senior titles Totum worked on in just one week and it included a Director of KM, a Director and Head of HR, a Director of Operations, three Directors of Business Development, a Director and Head of Finance, an IT Director, and a Chief Executive Officer.  

Business services positions have flourished at lower levels of seniority too. New roles include project and process improvement managers, knowledge engineers, data scientists, product and pricing managers, change managers… the list goes on.  

Another notable trend is the rise of business services roles focused on innovation. Our recent research has shown that 26 of the top 35 law firms now employ a business services professional with an innovation brief. Such managers typically work across the firm – from helping to deliver internal, efficiency focused improvements to implementing new product/service lines.

It’s part of a broader trend: business professionals moving beyond their functional silos into roles that help firms meet firm-wide objectives. Other examples include HR Directors becoming COOs, or communications managers operating across both marketing and HR. We think this blurring of functional boundaries will only increase as firms realise just how much these ‘non-lawyers’ know and the value of more integrated thinking.

Our predictions – to 2037


But what then for the next 20 years? Our horizon gazing is limited by the uncertain global and domestic political and economic landscape. But technology will undoubtedly be key – and specifically the impact of AI.

This is seen as an opportunity or threat. In March last year a Deloitte study claimed that technology has already contributed to the loss of around 31,000 jobs in the legal sector, and predicted that another 39% jobs are at risk in the next 20 years.

However, there has been an overall increase of approximately 80,000 new jobs in the sector, most of which are higher skilled. We therefore predict not so much a reduction in the number of employees but a change of skill sets as law firms seek the right talent to drive a technology-led/AI strategy forwards.

Those that combine knowledge of both technology and law will be particularly in demand. This could mean a rise in roles that link cutting-edge technology into more traditional functions like knowledge management – reflecting the fact that AI will only ever be as good as the experts managing the information that powers it. In this respect, roles such as data analysts and data scientists will also increasingly come to the fore.

Recent research we conducted with US consulting firm Calibrate Legal suggests that many firms still struggle to use data to assess the performance of business functions (in this context, of marketing teams). But with the rise of AI and data expertise, we see a commensurate growth in the ability to measure the value of business services functions, ensuring that they become ever more effective and efficient business units.

Perhaps this will lead to more administrative functions being outsourced to regional locations. Maybe technology-enabled flexible working will also support a more general shift out of the City. The daily commute may become as strange a concept as seeking out a phone box. And in this future maybe there will be no such thing as a ‘typical’ law firm, as models evolve and diversify.

Who knows where this will ultimately lead us. But what we are sure of is that business talent has changed law – and it is here to stay.


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