The legal profession is undergoing a period of profound change. Globalization and technology have transformed the global economy, with startups and tech companies dominating international markets, forcing traditional business to innovate or risk being left behind. Regulatory bodies are striving to keep up with the shift in economic power, and the emergence of new forms of value creation are leaving the legal industry with something of an identity crisis.
Law firms themselves have not been excluded from this trend. Increased automation and digitalization have changed the way legal services are conducted, leaving many asking what the future looks like for lawyers—and how best to prepare for it.
Technology and capital are enabling new legal delivery models to garner escalating market share because they address client needs. This is challenging the traditional law firm model and will ultimately disrupt it.
Lawyers 2.0, or the T-shaped lawyer
Lawyers of the future must match a deep understanding of the law with a host of other technical knowledge and soft skills to remain competitive. This is the so-called T-shaped lawyer. The term was developed to demonstrate the changing skill set of the lawyer 2.0. The long vertical bar of the T represents the core knowledge area of all lawyers, strong legal expertise, while the shorter, horizontal bar stands for an appreciation and understanding of other disciplines including technology, business, analytics, and data security.
By matching legal knowledge with these other areas, T-shaped lawyers are better positioned to problem solve and collaborate with professionals from a range of industries and professions.
A shift in skill set
How can future lawyers prepare for this change? Law students and young professionals may be concerned that a reduction in low-margin, high-volume tasks will lead to lower employment opportunities—after all, those with less specialized knowledge often work their way up by starting at the bottom.
The skills and competencies previously required by lawyers when embarking on their careers are no longer the same. A recent report by the International Bar Association considers the changes currently affecting the legal profession and the opportunities—and challenges—this poses for the future. The task force’s findings summarize the drivers of change in legal services, and the skills that are increasingly in demand.
As our global economy becomes increasingly interlinked and complex, lawyers must learn to navigate these systems if they are to provide a truly valuable service to their clients. But that’s not all.
IE Law School´s Vice dean Soledad Atienza makes the case that lawyers should develop the same competencies and skills as any other professional in our changing economy. Citing the 2018 report by the World Economic Forum—“The Future of Jobs”—she notes that the most valuable skills by 2022 will be analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies; and creativity, originality, and initiative.
Any law student or established lawyer alike will see the similarities of this trend to the skill set required by the legal profession. Lawyers must remain up-to-date on changes in regulation and case law, apply critical thinking to evaluate how this may impact upon their client, and creatively consider the appropriate advice and best possible solution to offer. In that sense, lawyers should not lose focus on the core competencies the profession has always been known for, and see technology as a way to further expand their skill set.
Generalist vs. specialist work
Future lawyers must also be prepared for the ways in which law firms themselves are making the most of new technology. More and more firms are investing in legal technology and software solutions to transform the way they operate, with some firms even establishing their own startup incubators to stay ahead of the game. We have already seen the impact of automation and innovation on traditional business models, with companies implementing automated processes to improve productivity and lower operational costs. The question is, what will this mean for law firms, and future lawyers themselves?
Technology provides the greatest return to firms when it reduces the time spent on repetitive, low-margin actions. This could include dealing with thousands of low-value insurance claims, the automation of standardized contracts, or the implementation of chatbots that respond to clients’ questions. These kinds of systems have already been introduced to a variety of industries, such as banking and retail, and it’s just a matter of time until they’re successfully incorporated into a law firm’s operations.
There are some who view this innovation with concern, as the more streamlined processes become, the fewer billable hours can be charged. While this may be true for some business models, we will most likely see a shift toward specialist, custom solutions for clients that require something more than a cookie-cut, automated response.
Lawyers should not lose focus on the core competencies the profession has always been known for, and see technology as a way to further expand their skill set.
Should lawyers learn to code?
The ability to code is an essential competency in today’s digital age. But does this extend to the legal profession?
There is a developing trend for lawyers themselves to be able to code. While this makes sense for legal tech professionals developing legal software and applications—for whom an understanding of both the legal industry and software is a necessity—it is perhaps less clear why this should extend to law firms and in-house lawyers.
The answer is simple. With the ever-increasing digitalization of business, programming expertise offers a clear competitive advantage when advising these clients. With greater insight into the core functions of code and the development process, lawyers gain a more nuanced understanding of what makes these businesses tick and the challenges that may be impeding their growth.
While future lawyers may not be tasked with upending their firm’s backend, an appreciation for programming will only set them further apart in our digital commercial landscape.
Legal education in the digital age
With innovation and digitalization continuing to transform global markets and businesses, law students and lawyers must adapt their skill set to meet the needs of their clients and their firms as a whole. Innovation in legal education has led to an emergence of new courses and programs that match the complexity of the global landscape, embedding students with the tools and techniques they need to thrive in the digital age.
It is clear that both students and established lawyers must approach education as a lifelong activity, and continuously update their knowledge and competencies to remain competitive in this changing commercial landscape. In this way lawyers will feel empowered to offer an even more valuable legal service, and be better placed to take advantage of the opportunities technology is bringing to the legal industry.