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The XII Balkan Legal Forum Discussed Challenges For The Modern Lawyer

The 12th Balkan Legal Forum “The Modern Lawyer” took place in Sofia, Bulgaria on June 6-7, 2024. The IBA Law Firm Management Committee, the IBA European Regional Forum, and the Legal Development Foundation with the support of SEE Legal, Bulgarian law firms, the Bulgarian Supreme Bar Council, and the Sofia Bar Association organized the event. The XII edition of the Balkan Legal Forum attracted representatives from over 30 countries across three continents.

The welcome remarks were delivered by Mr. Borislav Boyanov, Founder & Co-Chair of the Balkan Legal Forum. From his viewpoint, there has never been a more dynamic time in which to practice law. Among the challenges are the geopolitical situation, post-pandemic effects, social turbulence, and digitalization. All these challenges are a reason to upgrade the skills of modern lawyers adding also optimism, creativity, curiosity, and continuous learning. Professor Jorg Menzer, Secretary General of the IBA delivered his opening remarks focusing on the skill of the modern lawyer especially her/his determination to defend the rule of law and to adhere to the ethical standards of the profession.

Robert Millard, Director of Cambridge Strategy Group delivered a keynote presentation looking for answers to the question of what is the future of a lawyer and a law firm. From his point of view, law firms continue to exist being successful but in the so-called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. He spoke about the competitive advantage of the law firm in light of its impact on its rivals in terms of competency gaps as well as the importance of the use of AI.

Mike De Luca, Editor, of The Legal 500 Series explained the work on Directories and provided the audience with the answer to the question are they worth the effort in five main dimensions: helping law firms to find new clients domestically and in other jurisdictions; helping international firms to find local firms to help clients looking to enter different markets (referrals); helping new firms establish a footprint; saving time and energy and promoting future lawyers.

The key messages of the XII Balkan Legal Forum were summarized by Stephen Revell, Senior Co-Chair, IBA Law Management Committee as follows:

The law firms must do something about AI now.  They should all start using it to better understand AI.  It was also important to say that law firms need to bear in mind that AI is primarily a tool not some “alien disruptor”.  Like all the tools that law firms have adopted in the past, including things they now consider as basic tools like email, change causes a high degree of concern.  AI is causing even greater concern because of a fear of AI and the stories about how it will replace lawyers.  There was confidence that AI will not replace lawyers but as a tool, it will enable them to do things better and quicker and consequentially cheaper. The law firms have to be prepared for it and manage the use of AI.

The modern lawyer, and particularly the current generation, needs a wide range of soft skills.  Law firms must train and encourage their lawyers to develop those skills.  Of particular note was: Instilling in the modern lawyers an ethical approach, one that underscores the professional nature of their profession.  Lawyers are different – in a good way – and one of those differences is their integrity and the anchoring of what they do in an ethical approach. There is a need to ensure that the lawyers develop judgment. It is necessary to consider in the law firms how they train their lawyers to exercise good judgment.

Many law firms have strong business support functions.  Law firms need to focus on the real value those business support functions can add and encourage them to add that value to the firm and to our clients.  This does not come without challenges and these challenges include getting the right people and ensuring the partners of the law firms embrace the skills that those people have.  The people who perform business support functions are part of the law firms and need to be treated as such.  However, the law firms need to rigorously assess the value they add.

All law firms could do better in financial management.  As costs increase and, in many markets, revenue stays flat, profit is coming under pressure.  The law firms can do something about that through better financial management and a more considered approach to pricing.  The chargeable hour is not dead but that does not mean it is the right way to charge. The law firms need to focus more on financial management.

Well-being is not only the right thing to focus on, but it is good for law firms.  Law firms that have a strong sense of well-being and encourage well-being will be successful and sustainable.  Accordingly, wellbeing needs to be seen as part of the Managing Partner’s job not just something that is left to HR.  It is an essential element of the business of law firms to ensure they are looking after their people physically and mentally.

Above all law firms must take better care of their clients: talk to them and more importantly, listen to them.  Law firms should be talking enough to their clients about the things they think are important and that includes AI, but importantly, it also includes pricing.

Although the headline is often clients want things cheaper, the truth is clients want to understand the value the law firms are adding – or not adding – and to agree on a fair reward for that value added.  Particularly as the law firms change from everything being by reference to the chargeable hour, they will have to discuss pricing with their clients much more going forward.  Law firms need to be prepared for those discussions and ensure they are collecting the data to enrich those discussions and to have a pricing strategy for their law firm.  Each law firm, whatever the market, will have different strengths and different client bases and there is, accordingly, no simple answer to pricing.  It does need to be front and centre of a firm’s thinking and its relationship conversations with its clients.

The XII Balkan Legal Forum provided valuable insights for legal professionals navigating the complexities of the modern legal landscape.