Richard Susskind’s The End of Lawyers? might have had an overly provocative title, but it provided food for thought about the changing nature of legal practice when it was published in 2008. Now over a decade later and in the middle of another recession, it is apt to reflect on how the legal industry must evolve if it is to withstand the headwinds ahead and remain successful.
“Success” means different things to different people. For junior lawyers, this means developing technical and commercial skills, achieving career progression, and feeling supported. For law firms, this means addressing challenges—new technology, lack of diversity, and cost pressures. Indeed, law firms are seeing tender documents that ask about their technology and diversity initiatives, with a move toward linking financial incentives to diversity. Finally, for clients, “success” means lowering costs, obtaining commercial advice, and promoting service providers that support diversity. These goals may seem competing, but they are not in fact incompatible—if law firms develop their junior lawyers in the right ways.
The changes caused by COVID-19 make this an opportune time to get innovation projects off the ground. We need a cultural shift so that lawyers are as comfortable using legal technology (lawtech) as Word or PowerPoint. However, with the increasing use of lawtech, firms need to ensure that junior lawyers do not neglect the development of fundamental legal skills by relying too heavily on such tools. In fact, understanding the limits of lawtech is just as important as understanding its capabilities.
While it would be a waste of time to force all junior lawyers to take coding lessons, law firms should ensure that junior lawyers are familiar with the basics of concepts like AI and crypto so that they can speak their clients’ language. Encourage junior lawyers to get involved in running (or setting up) their firms’ lawtech incubators. Temporary assignments to firms’ internal lawtech teams could also be developed.
With COVID-19 and the trend toward remote working, senior lawyers need to ensure that technology such as video conferencing does not hinder the development of their juniors. In the office, junior lawyers were able to learn by osmosis—listening in on conversations—but now they must be actively invited to calls.
It is trite to say that clients expect their lawyers to be not only technically proficient, but also business-oriented and well-rounded. The question is, how do you achieve this?
A new client-led initiative from the U.K., the O Shaped Lawyer, seeks to improve adaptability, collaboration, EQ, resilience, and commerciality in lawyers. Incidentally, these traits are not easily replaced by lawtech. A six-month pilot involving firms and clients is being run to identify actions that can be taken to develop these areas within firms. The knowledge gained as to “what works” will be applicable more broadly, including in the U.S.
Education is the perfect place to plant the seeds for the O Shaped Lawyer. A once-in-a-generation change is occurring in U.K. legal education with the move to a bar examination in 2021 called the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). I helped with the development of an SQE-preparation course, and believe the SQE provides an opportunity to make legal education more practical and focused on soft skills (the SQE tests skills like client interviewing as well as legal knowledge). “Practical” and “focused on soft skills” are not strong suits of U.S. bar exams, and so perhaps ideas from the SQE can be transplanted in the U.S. Law firms should also explore partnering with institutions to provide part-time, online business education for their lawyers so that they can be better business advisers.
Law firms also should engage more with non-lawyers; for example, those in legal ops. Once we’re back in the office, targeted events (socially distanced of course) involving lawyers and non-lawyers could be used to encourage those connections. After all, law firms are businesses too, and there is no easier (or closer) way of improving commerciality than by learning from those in the same building.
The Black Lives Matter movement has given renewed focus to racial injustice and diversity issues. These issues apply to law firms as well.
Helping junior lawyers succeed means helping all junior lawyers succeed. Retaining diverse individuals is as important as recruiting them. Numerous reports show what we already know – that women and people of color are underrepresented at the top of the profession. But a 2018 report co-commissioned by the ABA, You Can’t Change What You Can’t See, actually detailed four main patterns of gender and racial bias experienced at work. These included the Prove-It-Again bias, where women and people of color reported needing to prove themselves more often than other colleagues just to be seen as equally competent. Remember, however, that the experiences of different ethnic groups within the “people of color” umbrella are not homogenous. And while less well-reported, other diversity factors like disability are no less important.
During this time, all firms will be looking for ways to tackle diversity issues. Of course, firms should continue with mentoring, reverse mentoring, affinity groups, and implicit bias training. But new, perhaps even radical, solutions should be explored.
In the U.K., we’ve seen a somewhat recent move away from office drinking culture, which if replicated in the U.S., should help people of all backgrounds feel more comfortable at work.
Firms should shift away from one-size-fits-all training. I have enjoyed writing articles in my spare time, but others may enjoy brushing up on a foreign language. Law firms should capitalize on the energy of their junior lawyers and support these endeavors—for example, by counting time spent toward any hours targets. Ultimately, a richer experience and knowledge gained outside of the office will filter into the work that junior lawyers do.
The disruption caused by COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reflect on many areas, including the development of junior lawyers. By focusing on the right things today, law firms can achieve success for all parties and ensure that their junior lawyers will be Tomorrow’s Lawyers (to reference another one of Susskind’s books).
About the Author
Richard Liu is a trainee solicitor at a Magic Circle law firm in London. He studied law at Cambridge and Harvard and is admitted to practice in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.