Over the past few years, the global legal industry has experienced, in general and despite Covid, strong and consistent results. In Spain, for example, according to the newspaper Expansión, corporate law revenues grew more than the country’s GDP from 2005 to 2021. In addition, the top 25 Spanish law firms increased their aggregate turnover from approximately €1 billion in 2005 to €2.35 billion in 2021 and the number of lawyers working in the largest firms rose from 6,000 to more than 10,000, which implies that growth has not only occurred in terms of size, but also in terms of value.
Nevertheless, we are undoubtedly living in difficult times. We have just survived a pandemic, only to be immersed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the enormous political and economic impact that this has had. In addition, digital transformation permeates every sphere of our lives, and climate change and the energy transition pose a colossal challenge.
As David Wilkins, Director of the Harvard Center for the Legal Profession, recently commented, the legal profession and law have a key role to play in society, particularly in today’s current environment. Regulation is increasing, and law firms are critical to understanding and applying new laws, as well as providing solutions to the complex problems that businesses must now tackle. Likewise, lawyers – as key actors in the constitutional function of the administration of justice – play a major role in ensuring the effective application of laws and guaranteeing legal certainty. The legal profession is fundamental to safeguarding individual rights and the rule of law.
Yet the field is also facing major challenges, particularly in talent, diversity, technology and growing competition.
Attracting talent is essential for law firms. It is their main asset. However, talent is a scarce commodity and there is strong competition for it. In addition, the new generations of lawyers are becoming more and more demanding about the social purpose and commitment of the firms in which they work. Therefore, to attract talent, law firms must offer young lawyers an attractive professional career path in addition to principles and values that match their expectations. In terms of ESG criteria, law firms face a twofold challenge: applying them in-house and advising their clients on how to deploy them in their organizations. It should be noted that lawyers play a key role in the development of ESG criteria worldwide.
Diversity is the second challenge, and a good first step for the industry is to begin with gender diversity. The number of female law graduates is growing: female applications to law courses in the UK have risen 13% over the last three years while, in the United States, women attending law school now outnumber men and the gap continues to widen. It is thus increasingly important for the profession to make itself attractive to these women.
It will be difficult for a machine to replace human qualities such as intuition, imagination, empathy and the ability to build trust.
The practice of law is, without a doubt, demanding. It requires not only solid legal knowledge, but also sound judgment, emotional intelligence, a desire to serve and, above all, tremendous dedication of time and energy. Probably the greatest difficulty for practitioners is achieving a good work-life balance. Both facets – work and life – are key to personal development and satisfaction and, unfortunately, they often clash with each other. It is not always easy to find an equilibrium because lawyers work for their clients and are not the masters of their own work schedules. This is an issue for each and every legal professional, but within our current societal structure, it heavily impacts the careers of female practitioners.
While recognizing the intrinsic difficulties of the profession, we must seek solutions and apply those that encourage a healthy work-life balance, such as flexible timetables, maternity and paternity leave and teleworking. One positive outcome of the pandemic has been the realization that telecommuting is not at odds with quality work. Lawyers have proven to be highly responsible, and clients have become accustomed to this. Although teleworking cannot replace face-to-face interaction, which is essential for teambuilding and corporate culture, all its advantages should certainly be harnessed and, when applied rationally, it can help significantly in balancing personal and professional commitments, and thereby increase diversity at large.
Consequently, and this is the third challenge, we must harness technology to become better lawyers and be more efficient in the future. Richard Susskind forecast dark omens for our profession when he wrote The Future of Law a few years ago. The title of one of his latest books, The End of Lawyers?, is even more dramatic. It is true that technological advances have simplified certain tasks and that clients will pay little for something a computer can do; but the good news is that it will be difficult for a machine to replace human qualities such as intuition, imagination, empathy and the ability to build trust, all of which are qualities a good lawyer must possess. We have to make technology our ally.
If we have naturally incorporated computers, cell phones, the Internet, and even WhatsApp into our daily routines, thus boosting our productivity, we must be capable of doing the same with artificial intelligence, big data, and smart contracts. I am convinced that all of them (including ChatGPT) will be very useful tools for the profession, freeing legal professionals from routine tasks to better focus on those that add real value. It is essential that law firms invest in these tools and adapt their organizations to new technologies, and lawyers should be trained and well versed in them. Not only must we remain aware of the impact that constantly evolving technology has on the legal practice, but we must not forget the very important role that law plays in the development of this technology and its use.
Lastly, the fourth challenge facing the legal field is growing competition. It is not only increased competition between law firms that is impacting the sector but also the advent of new operators with novel organizational approaches (the so-called Alternative Legal Service Providers) as well as stronger in-house legal departments, which makes companies more and more exacting in terms of price and quality.
Traditional law firms must recognize this new market reality and continue to innovate, to be efficient, technologically proficient, inclusive, and focused on purpose in order to continue providing the kind of services their clients and the future require of them.
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