Under the best economic circumstances, paying for legal services can be difficult for small businesses and startups. With the Covid-19 pandemic currently wreaking havoc on the global economy — and companies’ cash flow — there’s a good chance that businesses around the globe are putting their legal needs on the back burner. It wouldn’t be the first time; during the Great Recession, for example, growth in demand for U.S. law firm services dropped from 4.1% in 2007 to -5.1% in 2009.
While putting off legal services now, given market conditions, is understandable, it’s a risky practice that leaves companies vulnerable to oversights in areas ranging from drafting contracts to establishing employment policies. That, in turn, increases the risk of costly liability when it might be more difficult than ever for companies to pay for a legal defense or settlements.
The thing is, quality legal services shouldn’t be beyond businesses’ financial reach, regardless of their size, and it’s up to the legal profession to make sure they’re not. We should be making meaningful changes to the way we operate that will meet businesses’ needs now and during whatever new economic normal we face after the pandemic.
Earlier this year, American Lawyer commended North American attorneys for “stepping up to the plate” by maintaining open communication with clients and being flexible in how they offered services during difficult times.
More of us, around the world, should be doing the same.
I believe that offering flexible legal services, also known as legal services on demand, is a significant step in that direction. Flexible models allow businesses to work with premium attorneys on a per-project basis for considerably less money than they would spend to engage a law firm or employ in-house counsel. Companies get access to affordable legal services without sacrificing quality. This model helps attorneys, too, by providing work opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise and giving them more control over their hours.
Centurion Law Group launched a flexible services model, Centurion Plus, at our offices in Berlin and Frankfurt, Germany, earlier this summer. We’re not the first to offer this option, but our research showed that there continues to be a shortage of flexible legal services across Europe and in many countries around the globe. I hope other law firms follow our lead: It would be beneficial for our clients and for the legal profession.
The Flexible Model Makes Quality Legal Services Affordable
While flexible legal service programs vary by provider, the general idea is that businesses work with attorneys on a per-project basis. Firms that offer this service cultivate large pools of vetted attorneys with a wide range of specialties who work on a contract basis. When a business contacts them with a need, qualified lawyers can accept the project and go to work immediately. In most cases, the attorneys work remotely. There are no requirements for attorneys to meet billable hours quotas, and their rates don’t factor in employee benefits or overhead expenses. All of this makes flexible legal services convenient and affordable, even for companies with limited financial resources.
The Flexible Model Helps Attorneys
The flexible model meets attorneys’ needs, too, and during the COVID-19 era, it protects participating lawyers’ livelihood. Instead of facing the risk of layoffs, attorneys in the flexible model are more likely to continue getting work because they represent a more affordable option than traditional law firm associates or in-house counsel. Plus, in a flexible model, participating attorneys can be “shared” across departments, and even among law firms with agreements in place, giving them more opportunities to be matched with clients who need their skills and expertise.
The flexible model also considers the needs of attorneys with children: Practicing law when there’s uncertainty about schools remaining open can be extremely challenging. In Germany, for example, governments are hopeful schools will be able to continue in-person classes, but there are no guarantees. For attorneys with children, flexible scheduling and the ability to work from home can be invaluable. Not only that, working remotely through a flexible legal services program is ideal for attorneys who have underlying health issues or vulnerable family members who can’t risk being exposed to Covid-19. Even when we return to a strong economy and the pandemic is a thing of the past, flexible models will give attorneys the ability to avoid the long workdays that are common in our profession while continuing to pursue their passion.
We Must Be Innovative
As I have mentioned, flexible legal service is not a new concept. In fact, some American and European firms started offering this service more than a decade ago, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. We simply need to see more firms around the globe willing to embrace this new model — and to continue innovating from there. Firms should be looking at potential clients’ needs and pain points; how can we better address them? We should be looking for ways to support the people in our profession, across all levels; how can we help them succeed? Successful businesses in other fields are in a constant state of evolution, of problem-solving and, when necessary, re-inventing themselves. Law firms should be doing the same.
If we are going to be effective in the Covid era and whatever follows, we must be willing to break away from tradition and adapt creative new ways to operate. We need to start looking ahead now so we can successfully meet clients’ needs in the future.
NJ Ayuk is Executive Chairman of the African Energy Chamber, CEO of pan-African corporate law conglomerate Centurion Law Group, and the author of several books about the oil and gas industry in Africa, including Billions at Play: The Future of African Energy and Doing Deals.