The Legal Update

Six months into 2020, the legal profession has taken emergency measures to face a global crisis, has gone through an unexpected digital transformation and is just now assessing the situation to plan for the future. The road we take can either be a unique opportunity to reshuffle the cards and rethink the way we work or to set aside the past few months and get back to the old ways. 

Inspired by the RSA’s A Blueprint for Good Work report, LegalGeek’s The Uncertain Decade and Ari Kaplan’s virtual lunches, we look at future trends and models that will impact the delivery of legal services for years to come. One or more of these forces may be instrumental in shaping sustainable solutions for our current major legal industry issues.

#1 Value-based legal services

Since its earliest days, legal services have had a strong focus on continuous improvement to deliver the highest possible value to the client but that value was often hard to quantify or qualify. Unlike other professions, law has never really adopted peer review systems and the use of metric-linked incentives for legal services providers, except in some areas of B2C legal practice. The billable hour and profit per partner have long been the golden standards of success but that is changing.

In large legal teams, general counsel have passed the procurement baton to chief operating officers responsible for data-driven quality improvement initiatives across all levels of business – including legal. Every aspect of legal services delivery is increasingly subject to quality and cost assessments. Economic rewards (getting invited to a panel) and penalties (falling off a panel) are also becoming more tied to those assessments. Alternative legal services, with remote or flexible legal services models, or legal tech solutions have shifted from being bystanders to trusted partners in a global industry.

Economic consequences have kicked up a notch as the fee-for-service model gives way to value-based services. While success was more often measured by the number of hours billed or clients served, it will shift to a measure in terms of the economic growth and legal goals of clients.

There will continue to be a drive to find more innovative and effective value-based analytics, automation and reporting. To make a sustainable shift to value-based legal services, legal services providers will need to develop deep and substantive understandings of the foundations of client data, legal issues and services delivered. For new entrants to the market, that will mean breaking down the formidable barrier of decades-long law firm-client relationships to access the data.

#2 Tech-driven personalisation

While the delivery of legal services once followed a boutique protocol for every client, law is moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach and in some areas, is heading toward unique, personalised service delivery based on highly individual situations and conditions. 

Companies increasingly require cheaper, faster, more efficient legal services customised for them. Process mapping, machine learning and AI are among the advances that make this possible. Deloitte confirmed this trend, predicting in 2016 that 39% of all legal tasks would be automated by 2030, which is good news as most of these tasks were either repetitive or mind numbing, with humans bringing little value to the process.

As fitness trackers monitor our health, it is not so far-fetched to imagine internal business health trackers measuring the smooth running of contracts, low litigation rates and irregular spikes in the need for legal services. Combined with predictive risk analysis and regulatory tools, data science could help identify future legal needs and the best models of legal service delivery for complex transactions. 

At this point in the legal forest, two paths diverge: do we compete with emerging systems or do we build them? Hopefully, the second path will prevail. That means that new lawyers will need to understand data analytics as well as soft skills such as EQ, collaboration & cultural awareness. Rather than looking at the end of lawyers, new trends would reimagine the legal industry for the digital age with a more customer-centric approach.

#3 Society-driven legal services 

After decades of money-driven growth, the coronavirus crisis shook the very foundations of our consumer society and purpose crept in as a pillar of future growth. This type of model envisages a future of responsible stewardship where all legal professionals, business or practice, should be focused on the best outcome for their private clients as well as for society. 

There is a place in the legal landscape for lawyers who service vastly-underrepresented areas and more opportunities for career paths that will help people. Whether the end goal is access to justice, diversity & inclusion or the climate crisis, there is a tremendous opportunity for future lawyers to create the apps, or to help the creator of the app by giving them use cases, to address a societal need. 

In this empathy-driven model, the legal profession has an opportunity to better serve society and come back to its ethical roots. It will also open up its door to a new generation of non-legally-trained legal professionals. Some of the smartest new legal services are designed by people who are not lawyers. They are in the business of helping people and the difference in emphasis is huge as the rise of these services is completely consumer-driven. 

There are opportunities in adversity. Something as simple as putting more services online, allowing clients to generate forms, a mix of self-help and lawyer review will all improve access to justice and society. Future approaches will need new tools that connect people to potential resource assistance options, provide a means for follow-up and use analytics to determine success.

#4 Customer experience

Lawyers as a profession had a very insular culture outside of a more diverse ecosystem. Now, lawyers are one part of a team, with the client as the final decision-maker in setting and achieving their own goals. This power shift will break down business silos, with a legal industry open to new models and newer ways to doing things. 

As general counsel and legal leaders play a larger role in their own legal services decisions, providers will be increasingly focused on improving the customer experience at all levels. It’s becoming increasingly clear that a satisfied client is also an engaged one and studies have linked client engagement to better outcomes and lower costs.

Lawyers will also be able to align and collaborate with the industry as law merges with data analytics, engineering, or computer science. Where traditional lawyers have been about input and bespoke labor, legal professionals are about output, scaling and legal efficiency. They will be led by a more customer-centric approach, with a heightened effort to solicit and use client feedback and responses. This means not just “asking to ask,” but asking with the intent of making real change. 

Conclusion

These major trends in the delivery and operation of legal services will have big impacts on the clients and legal teams of the future. One thing we can be sure to expect is a continuous evolution toward connecting across the legal system, with clients at the centre.

 

Making Work, Work

The skills that today’s generation of legal leaders have learned have evolved and tomorrow’s legal leaders will need to rely on new skills adapted to our times for success. These skills will stray somewhat from a straight-forward traditional legal knowledge education and to create this 21st century legal education, providers are working with practitioners and legal firms.

Providers offering bespoke legal tech education

Ten years ago, legal tech skills were the realm of legal nerds with a niche knowledge of coding and technology. Today, legal tech has become a widespread buzz word, legal tech events attract thousands of legal leaders of all ages and legal educators have jumped onto the legal tech bandwagon. Current legal practice course providers such as BPP offer a Legal Technology Innovation and Design module that teaches “an area at the forefront of new skills sought by recruiters [which] focus[es] on building the innovation skills that future solicitors will be expected to demonstrate, including understand[ing] legal technology (e.g. AI, Blockchain, Big Data, and Automation) develop[ing] project management skills and techniques, learn[ing] skills to design technology that responds to problems and engag[ing] in design thinking and process mapping vital in the legal workplace.”

There has also been a rise in more innovative law departments offering more fit for purpose bespoke legal and technology courses. As Alex Smith, Global RAVN Product Lead at iManage and co-author of the book Do Lawyers Need to Learn to Code? A Practitioner Perspective on the ‘Polytechnic’ Future of Legal Education says, “the growth of these initiatives designed to prepare students for the increasingly technological nature of practice reinforces the increased importance placed on cultivating a system of ‘work-ready’ graduates”.

One such course is the Innovation, Technology and the Law LLM at the University of Edinburgh, attended by Ekaterina Harrison, postgraduate student and highly experienced banking & finance lawyer. She chose the course because of her long-standing interest in digital technologies and how people use them. Digital assets, tokenisation, behavioural analysis and other innovations are opening up new opportunities and changing finance products.

“Lawyers like me,” Harrison says, “need thorough knowledge and understanding of the digital space”.

She studies alongside working and was drawn to the flexible approach of the course, which is both part-time and online, allowing her to continue with her main practice areas of banking and finance.

What skills are required by lawyers of the future?

Smith in part agrees with Harrison, writing that in his years of working in legal innovation, his observations are twofold.

“The first is the need to enable the application of learning and skill-building as early as possible to enhance workplace performance; the second is the need to have a core base of legal knowledge”, concluding that “future commercial lawyers need to experience a tertiary education much more akin to an apprenticeship” and that “lawyers of the future will interact with the technology, not write it”.

In other exchanges, he was more forthright and suggested that while tomorrow’s lawyers could benefit from skills such as understanding data, how data is building up, how to measure using data and how to investigate in data (eg eDiscovery or contract discovery) as well as better visualisation of end product skills, learning to code would not yield as clear-cut benefits. Instead, he favoured the idea that lawyers, in general, could stand to work more closely alongside other professionals. More specifically, while lawyers should definitely equip themselves with enough knowledge to be able to work alongside tech developers, product managers, UX, and data scientists, he didn’t believe that lawyers needed that level of professional skills themselves.

That is certainly something highlighted by Harrison as a benefit she has seen in her work, directly attributable to the course. “I think lawyers could learn a lot from how software developers work”, she says. “I mean, the adoption of agile practices. Not all principles of agile working are applicable to legal work but a lot could be borrowed and tailored.” She also mentions a specific example of where new technical skills were coming in useful.

“For example, I can do simple coding in Python. When I worked on a big document migration project, my basic programming skills helped me to analyse thousands of lines of information in Excel. If I had not known how to interpret the data, I would not even have attempted it. But I knew and it was a great benefit for the project. I would identify programming and project management as technical skills that can potentially turn a good lawyer into a great one”.

Using tech skills to the client’s advantage

Another lawyer we spoke to made it clear that she believed “understanding data is key for business – if you can access and use your own data, you can develop a competitive advantage over your competitors”. Clare Weaver, a legal consultant and previously in-house counsel, now specialises in using legal tech to her client’s advantage. After two Oxford University Online courses from the Said Business School in Bitcoin Strategy and AI, she was able to re-skill to a more tech-orientated skillset. This allows her to be able to advise clients in both the FinTech and tech sectors, in particular that knowledge of how AI works and what applications can be used.

Weaver too speaks of how helpful it is for lawyers to be able to understand how natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning works. She reiterates Smith’s point that she doesn’t think lawyers need to learn to code but “should understand how developers create and build products, whilst guiding the user experience side of things which is most important of a product is to be useful”. “For me”, she says, “that’s the most interesting point – how to adapt products for use by different users and why adoption differs in different communities”.

But do lawyers need to learn to code?

No, seems to be the general thought. As Smith summarises, tomorrow’s lawyers “should be developing curiosity, humility, growth mindset and willingness to work in truly cross-functional teams” or, as he concludes in his book, “developing their interpersonal skills, comprehending the emerging user-centric business world, engaging with their curiosity and creative problem-solving skills, listening carefully to their clients’ needs and openly engaging with the changing world within which their clients operate and the leadership dynamic that governs that operation”.

In other words, a legal tech qualification isn’t ever going to make you a tech professional (and physically being able to code isn’t necessary) but getting a good grounding and understanding of the tech space generally may well help you be a better future lawyer in a world that is now definitely digital.