This post by Dave Curran originally appeared on Thomson Reuters' Legal Executive Institute on September 2017.
The legal profession is being challenged on all fronts. Clients are demanding that work be done better, faster and cheaper. Advances in Legal and Reg Tech are challenging the very nature of the work that lawyers do and how they do it.
So, how do today’s lawyers adjust and adapt to this sea change, and what can future lawyers expect their practices and careers to look like? Thomson Reuters Legal Managed Services and the Law Society of England and Wales hosted a roundtable discussion in London last week that focused on how corporate legal departments, law schools, law firms and innovative legal tech and alternative service companies are preparing today’s lawyers for the opportunities and challenges of the real world.
Our program included thought leaders from private practice, in-house legal, leading law schools and the public sector. Across the board, these thought leaders recognized that advances in people, processes and technological innovations are upending the skillsets of those law students seeking to join the profession, as well as what seasoned lawyers need to know to remain relevant in their profession. Members of the roundtable spent a good portion of the conversation discussing how the profession and educators are changing the way they deal with the particular learning needs of different generations of lawyers and students.
We also talked about the complex matrix of client needs and the impact on lawyers’ “soft skills”, creativity and critical thinking. Although a great deal of the process-driven work that lawyers currently handle can and will be automated, much of their value-add will still come down to their ability to make filtering judgements, and ultimately to make key judgement calls.
Although a great deal of the process-driven work that lawyers currently handle can and will be automated, much of their value-add will still come down to their ability to make filtering judgements, and ultimately to make key judgement calls.
Session participants raised concerns that while young lawyers joining the profession are digital natives — intuitively comfortable with technology — they might not always understand the underlying systems. We also discussed challenges associated with an environment where many “answers” are available at the flip of a switch or the click of a mouse. Those answers need to be interrogated, and the group recognized the conundrum that this poses — doing things cheaper and faster can sometimes result in poorer quality outcomes because easy-to-find information sometimes can be incomplete or wrong.
The group also talked about the generational variations on approaching the elusive life/work balance and the burnout and stress challenges unique to the legal profession. Due in part to the tremendous financial burden that comes with a top legal education, particularly in the US, young lawyers are driven to work ever later and longer hours, meeting aggressive deadlines set by partners and clients. Against this backdrop, is it any wonder they’re willing to accept answers they find via Google at face value?
Both educators and employers at the session highlighted the sheer amount of pressure under which we place new lawyers. Being a subject matter specialist is no longer enough. We also demand that they demonstrate commercial savvy, an entrepreneurial mindset and advanced technology and project management skills. More senior participants wondered if they would have been so successful if they had faced the same expectations — and the same debt load.
Execs from leading companies, law firm partners and educators also discussed the significant investments they are making in process and technologies in order to meet the needs of their constituents. Technology in education could also help address spiraling costs; if legal education can be delivered more cheaply, then it can mitigate the entrenchment of access to the profession that is based more on ability to pay than ability as a lawyer.
The discussion concluded on a positive note, as employers and educators praised the amazing work ethic and aptitude of their young lawyers. The future of the profession is in safe hands; we need only ensure that those hands are holding the right tools.