On the horizon: Why firms must look ahead to remain competitive

In the constantly changing legal landscape, it’s more important than ever for legal professionals to have their sights on the future of their field. This includes anticipating changes in the law and the effect they could have on how they operate, as well as how their clients and regulators operate. Horizon scanning has become an essential part of how lawyers work, enabling them to better identify, prepare and anticipate legal developments, implementations and changes in legislation.

This seems to present a useful opportunity for defining what is meant by horizon scanning, and to take a closer look at some sample processes, key features and tools available to firms in this area.

The starting point is to explore the important distinction between current awareness and horizon scanning, something that can occasionally be overlooked. Current awareness is understood as being about what is happening today, tomorrow and next week – it’s the ‘right now’. In contrast, horizon scanning is about looking at what we need to be aware of to plan for success. It’s about the view of the next 12 months and beyond. My favourite analogy is to compare a newspaper (current awareness) with an almanac.

Casting a wide net

In addition to this general definition of horizon scanning, it can be further refined to distinguish between two types. The first can be referred to as a ‘wide net’. This is the comprehensive, sustainable, quick and automated approach to horizon scanning. It’s impossible to know which developments may have an impact, so you need to be sure you can catch them all. A new piece of law may have an impact for a seemingly unlikely practice area, or test cases could turn into class actions. The wide net enables you to be certain that you are capturing all the information you need to allow for any possible developments.

This is sometimes very challenging, as there can be so much information to cover with little indication of what might be important. Newspapers, blogs, current awareness feeds and new publications can mean there are thousands of entries to scan, analyse and compile.

Without a dedicated team or tools to assist, this can be a daunting prospect indeed. Paid-for services such as Practical Law, Westlaw UK and Lawtel all have wide current awareness feeds indexed by sector or practice area for easy and relevant consumption.

You can get practice-specific feeds from free sites as well. The government’s website allows you to sign up for email alerts or RSS feeds by department and topic. You can also search for content and filter these searches by type, such as press releases or speeches.

In addition, The National Archives manages a website on behalf of the government, which allows you to create basic feeds of newly published and draft legislation.

You can also receive email alerts from publication websites and Thomson Reuters Legal Insights UK & Ireland.

If you are responsible for this form of horizon scanning, as well as choosing your content, find a process that works for you. Some prefer to receive daily emails and feeds, file them into a convenient inbox folder and then go through each one in turn, picking out key trends.

Staying sharp

The second type can be referred to as ‘sharp focus’ horizon scanning. Once a trend has been identified, the sharp focus is about how you track this moving forward. It is about making sure you can understand the potential scope and impact of a trend. To be able to do this effectively, you need to be sure that you are using key trusted commentary and expertise, avoiding information overload. Sharp focus is also about being able to access relevant analytical information on a trend in a timely and flexible way.

Also important is the need for easy dissemination of this information. It will need to be able to be automated and repeatable, and presented in a flexible format as different people will have different needs and aims.

SME time

When SME firms talk to us, their primary focus is their immediate caseload, client retention and acquisition, and the development and running of the business side of things. Serving existing matters and profitably remain core concerns. These firms increasingly need to work harder, faster and smarter to deliver to the client – as well as addressing the challenges of profitability and cashflow. The core focus must be on resolving clients’ immediate and current problems. Horizon scanning to keep an eye on the future for planning comes second.

For the majority of SME firms, their key differentiator is people: their specialisms, capabilities and the personalised service they can offer their clients.

Developing these people and equipping them with the ability to anticipate future challenges and identify potential obstacles enables them to remain a trusted partner to their clients as well as re-engage with former clients. Positioning your firm ahead of the curve, adding value to clients and being a thought leader – not a trend follower – is no longer an optional exercise.


This article appeared in LPM September – Table plans: Get your copy here.

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