The Legal Update

Guest blogger Louisa van Eeden-Smit of LexisNexis UK follows her recent article on smart contracts with another future-gazing blog, this time looking at what you need to future proof your career for the law firm of the future.

What will the law firm of the future look like? It’s a reasonable question to ask considering how much the legal market has changed already, and the ever-increasing pace of change moving forwards.

PwC’s 2018 Law Firm Survey found that 100% of the top 10 firms cited technology as the key challenge to growth over the next two years, but there is an overall optimism about the direction the industry is heading and the ability to stay competitive. The key questions that seem to come up in our experience are: How much will technology change the face of legal service? Will the generalist die out? Will more firms merge, or will the niche outfit emerge triumphant? Will more lawyers become self-employed, providing virtual services to organisations?

Regardless of the outcomes, there are ways that legal professionals – be they part-time, returners, flexi-workers, or full-time in-house – can future-proof their careers.

Here are 5 key ways that legal professionals can move forwards in this changing world:

#1 Be flexible

A degree of agility and flexibility will be necessary regarding how lawyers deliver legal services. This is as true now, with the advent of new regulations and an increasingly tech-savvy and informed client base, as it will be in the future. A willingness to adapt will serve you well, as well as open-mindedness regarding alternatives to the traditional model of working that is fast becoming a relic. From portfolio careers to flexible working, there are more models than ever to suit professionals – and benefit both employer and employee.

#2 Listen to the client

Client loyalty isn’t a given in a market replete with so many options – it’s earned. Today’s client is more informed and tech-savvy than ever. They are willing to shop around and they are empowered. When clients demand efficient, tech-led services, for example, legal services providers should listen and adapt.  It’s also important to be proactive and show how the firm is anticipating future change and preparing to evolve services.

#3 Develop relationships

Client loyalty may not reign supreme anymore, so it has become critical that law firms prove themselves to the in-house legal teams they serve. Listening to what they need and learning the business from the inside out will allow them to stand out from the crowd by offering in-house counsel exactly what they want, exactly what they consider to be valuable. “Deep knowledge of the business is what really breeds loyalty,” according to Richard Harris, Chief Legal Officer at Robert Walters Group.

#4 Be more commercial

In addition to learning about the business in order to provide more nimble and forward-looking advice, a future-proof and commercial legal professional is one that acts proactively. If you can look ahead and anticipate what issues might impact your business and put forward relevant plans of action, you will prove yourself to be indispensable. Such advice is “worth its weight in gold”, says Dean Nash, Head of Legal and Compliance at Monzo Bank, and will allow you to retain business in a competitive market.

#5 Make technology your friend

In-house legal teams consider it to be a win-win. After all, with technology streamlining the service, the process becomes faster, and invoices get lower. Legal tools are just that – tools that can be used to support lawyers, not replace them. Harnessing them to provide efficient service is a no-brainer, especially considering the fact that it can free up lawyers to focus on the parts of their job they actually like.

Overall, legal professionals who are willing and able to jump in and run with the changes – namely, maintaining a lean, agile practice, one that uses technology and offers efficient, business-centric service – will find themselves in a good position – and way ahead of the curve.

It also seems there is a common prediction emerging – part hope, part anticipation based on current trends – that law firms will be more holistic in the future. This applies to both client service and employee care. There is a hope that law firms will take a broader look at the service they provide; addressing the whole commercial picture of the business, as opposed to offering discrete pieces of legal advice, for example.

Similarly, more holistic practices with regards to employee care, respecting work-life balance and acknowledging their varying needs, are expected. As Alison Unsted, head of global diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at Hogan Lovells, said in a recent LexisNexis piece on the perks and benefits future law firms might provide: “As the make-up of our people changes over time, as a firm we need to ensure that we are agile in our response, so that our benefit offering continues to attract and retain talent.”

For consultants or legal professionals moving into this sphere, or laterally moving within it, there are more opportunities than ever to have the kind of career you want. The legal market is constantly evolving and allowing for more diverse working opportunities – the only question remains: what does the legal team or law firm of your future look like?

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

We often talk of the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of diversity in the legal profession, so it is but it is important to also look at the achievements and positive trends to inform and inspire future progress within the industry. Encouraging more diversity in recruitment is just one aspect of this progress – alternative business structures and a culture rethink is required to retain diverse legal talent. Here at Obelisk we work to lead by example and change the culture of the legal services industry to create a flexible working model accessible to all.

In June, there were some encouraging trends coming out of the UK Law Society’s annual statistic report, showing that the number of BAME and women solicitors is on the rise. Solicitors coming from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds now make up 16% of the profession, and 57% of these are women, in contrast to 48% of white solicitors who are women. Overall for 2015-16, 62% of admissions were female, up from 53% 15 years ago.

What Firms Must Do Address a Lack of Diversity in the Legal Profession

Any private practice or other public company who is actively working to tackle the complex issue of diversity is to be celebrated. Working to minimise recruitment bias, tapping latent and underused talent and incentivising company diversity are just some of the key areas of focus for diversity programmes and innovations. Some specific, high profile examples that have been particular talking points in the legal profession include HP’s diversity mandate that withholds a percentage of fees from firms who do not meet their set diversity requirements, previously discussed here in the Attic.

Another example is Nixon Peabody, which has adapted its approach to recruitment – ensuring that 20% of candidates called are diverse (the definition of a diverse workforce for Nixon Peabody CEO and managing partner Andrew Glincher includes all – BAME, women, LGBTQ) and first candidate called for leadership position is diverse if equally qualified for the position. The firm has earned a 100% ranking from the Human Rights Campaign in its Corporate Equality Index for ten consecutive years.

Talent retention

Of course, it’s not just about attracting talent to create a more diverse workforce, but also to maintain a culture that retains such talent. In fact, it can be detrimental to the success of a diversity programme if the focus is too much on recruitment and hiring. Firms need to look at the whole picture and focus on changing the mindset in recruitment, investing in people who want to build their careers and develop with a company long term.

Work that works for everyone

The profession needs to acknowledge individual difference and recognise that people’s needs will change over time. They need to work closely with those talented individuals and use their experience to inform company decisions, recruitment and training in future. Rather than expecting individuals to come in and adapt to an existing culture they should have a role in shaping it for the better. There are signs that this concept of a total change in culture and working patterns is becoming more popular, with the Law Society survey reporting that 475 alternative business structures (ABSs) were in operation: 116 more than a year earlier making up 5% of all firms.

Adapt or be gone

When it comes to diversity measures conversations often turn to criticism of so-called positive discrimination. It’s important to be clear that levelling a playing field and creating a working culture that allows everyone to progress in their career no matter what their background or personal situations. Nobody loses out if more people are more meaningfully able to compete and challenge one another – we all do better when the game is fair, and more of society is reflected in institutions that represent them. As Law Society president Roberts Bourns puts it: “Firms with good diversity, inclusion and social mobility policies have a competitive advantage… Not only do solicitors themselves come from an ever widening pool – reflecting the diverse society of which we are part and which we serve – but new business models are flourishing, allowing us to provide an ever more tailored service to our clients.”

The progress we’ve seen shows there are many steps in the right direction. But the rise is diversity in the industry globally is slow, and it is important to remember that law remains the least diverse profession in many countries, including the US. It is vital to see more leaders actively tackling the issue, and championing alternative ways of working to retain talent and create a more open and accessible industry.