This post was based upon the author’s keynote address to The German Bar Association on May 26th, 2017.
One way to describe the future lawyer is to list some key challenges attorneys will confront, then identify skillsets required to meet them.
Defending the rule of law. This is democracy’s foundation and the mortar for its institutions. Lawyers are its first responders and last defenders. The rule of law is under siege around the world, and lawyers—present and future-- must respond to the challenge. As a young Danish lawyer told me recently, ‘I grew up as a child of the EU taking freedom for granted; I don’t anymore. I’m glad I became a lawyer so I can fight for it.’
Insuring access to justice. The rule of law is undermined when a significant portion of society lacks meaningful access to legal representation. Such is the case in the US and UK—elsewhere, too. Law has a distribution problem; there are too many unemployed and under-employed attorneys while millions of potential clients go unrepresented because they cannot afford counsel at current rates. Tools exist to correct this imbalance. Technology, process, project management, collaboration, and new delivery models are at the fingertips of future lawyers that can use them to refashion legal delivery.
Preserving a free press and insuring that social media and ‘fake news does not subvert fact, evidence, and democratic institutions. Defending a free press has long been a mission for lawyers. Social media has broadened that ongoing challenge. For many, social media is their ‘news’ source-- an ‘alternative press’ that lacks veracity filters and can ‘go viral’ in minutes. Social media is rapidly eclipsing traditional media, providing a global platform for ‘alternative facts,’ propaganda, and misinformation masquerading as ‘news.’ Lawyers must not allow the fact-agnostic court of public opinion to marginalize the judicial process. They must also take the lead to streamline the judicial process, utilizing technology and process to make it more accessible, agile, faster, and cost-effective than our outdated court systems are today.
Insuring diversity in the legal profession. The world is more inter-connected than ever before. A more diverse legal profession is essential to enhance public confidence in the rule of law. The UK recently took a bold step in that direction with its ‘Super Exam.’ The UK’s independent Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) has dispensed with formal legal training as a requisite for attorney licensure. It has created an exam that tests knowledge of core legal principles; competency; contemporarily relevant skills (project management, technology as applied to legal delivery, interviewing clients, etc.); and experience. In providing various paths to licensure, the SRA intends to insure lawyers are practice-ready upon entry into the profession. The ‘Super Exam’ also reduces the cost of legal training and, in doing so, promotes professional diversity. This is a great step towards creating ‘the future lawyer,’ one that other countries should examine carefully.
Ensuring adherence to ethical standards. Law is big business—some estimates peg it at $1trillion per year. But law is also a profession governed by ethical standards. Lawyers will be exposed to old and new ethical challenges—client pressure to ‘push the envelope,’ economics, and the ‘ethics of technology’ to mention but a few. Future lawyers must adhere to ethical standards to protect the rule of law and to ensure that the dual role of law as a profession and a business is preserved. They must deliver ‘faster, better, cheaper’ legal services but never compromise on ethics. Future lawyers must utilize available tools to provide greater access, collaboration, and alignment of interest with clients; that is their ethical duty to individual clients and to society.
What Is A Lawyer?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a lawyer as, ‘A person who practices or studies law; an attorney or counselor.’ That’s a broad definition. It can be expanded to include: (1) licensure; (2) adhering to a code of ethics; (3) upholding the law; (4) simultaneously representing clients that retain them and society; (5) rendering professional judgment; and (6) representing clients in tribunals/transactions and where specialized expertise is required.
Lawyers are in the persuasion and collaboration business. They must persuade prospective clients that they are the right counsel for the engagement; opposing counsel that they are a formidable adversary; and judges that they are competent and ethical. Lawyers use persuasion—within the bounds of ethical conduct—to effect positive, value driven results for their clients. At the same time, a lawyer must also be collaborative. Many people-lawyers included-mistakenly believe that litigation and negotiation is a zero-sum game. Not so. The overwhelming majority of ligation matters are settled; that requires a combination of persuasiveness and collaboration-- with opposing counsel, clients, and the court-- to effect settlement. Likewise, completed commercial transactions require a combination of persuasion and collaboration by counsel. The widespread use of technology in legal delivery will place an even greater premium on lawyers possessing intellectual intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ). Persuasive, collaborative lawyers merge the two.
Collaboration will have an even broader scope for future lawyers. Disaggregation-the migration of ‘legal work’ from law firms to other legal providers-requires that lawyers collaborate not only with other attorneys but also with technologists, paraprofessionals, project managers, and other professionals. Future lawyers will collaborate across geographies, cultures, and in different political and regulatory environments. Future lawyers must ‘collaborate’ with technology—especially artificial intelligence applications—as well. Technology will not supplant lawyers, but it will enable legal services—and products—to be delivered differently than the traditional law firm partnership model. Technology will continue to recast what tasks lawyers perform and from what models and at what price points they deliver them. Law was once about selling legal expertise. Now, legal delivery is a three-legged stool supported by legal, technological, and process/project management. The fundamentals of what lawyers do—legal practice—have not changed much. But what has changed dramatically is how legal services are delivered—by whom, utilizing what resources, from what kind of business structure, at what cost, for what types of business challenges, and in a way better aligned with client expectations and sense of value. This is why the future lawyer must enter the marketplace with considerably more expertise than simply a knowledge of doctrinal law.
A Checklist of Skillsets for the Future Lawyer
For a long time, simply ‘knowing the law’ was the sole requirement for lawyers to deliver legal services. Those days are over. The future lawyer must augment core legal knowledge with other skills including: (1) understanding technology’s application to and impact on the delivery of legal services (e.g. e-discovery, cyber-security, contract management, legal research, etc.); (2) project/process management; (3) basic business fluency; (4) client management; (5) collaboration; (6) sales and marketing; (7) an understanding of global legal marketplace developments; (8) cultural awareness for what has become a global profession; and (9) emotional intelligence/’people skills.’ Emotional intelligence is widely overlooked as a critical legal skill. Top lawyers with high intellect (IQ) and people skills (EQ) will always thrive, no matter how pervasive technology becomes in legal delivery. Future lawyers--like physicians that have morphed from medical practice to the delivery of healthcare-- will return to the role of ‘trusted advisers.’ They will interpret data and apply their professional judgment to solve client challenges. In some ways, future lawyers will be ‘returning to basics’ and performing only those tasks that they are uniquely trained to do. Technology, process, and other paraprofessionals and professionals will liberate them to focus on these core tasks. This will better serve clients even if there might sometimes be a harsh economic impact on mid-career attorneys caught between two different legal delivery models.
The legal vertical, long dominated by law firms, is undergoing a tectonic shift in its buy/sell dynamic. This is a result of remarkable advances in technology, globalization, and the aftermath of the global financial crisis that has radically transformed so many verticals. The legal guild is being replaced by a more client-centric, accessible (24/7/365), technology-enabled, process driven, knowledge management based, cost-effective, collaborative, agile, and global delivery model. This is the golden age of the legal entrepreneur. Regulatory barriers established by the self-regulated legal industry that frustrate competition are either being re-regulated or are being cast aside by clients that are migrating more- and more complex- work to providers other than law firms.
The future lawyer will play an integral role in this transformation. Millennials are already impacting the legal buy/sell dynamic by introducing new, technology and process enabled, agile legal delivery models. They are converting many legal 'services' into 'products (especially in the compliance, contract, and regulatory areas). Delivery of legal services is no longer a staid, hierarchical, monolithic model whose economics are misaligned with clients. It is a global marketplace where the future lawyer can collaborate, design, and deliver new products and services across nations and continents. It’s a time of great opportunity for future lawyers to bring millions of new customers into the marketplace—for the benefit of all.
As the lawyers of the future recreate the legal marketplace, they must zealously defend the rule of law. Its defense will be their most important matter, a constant reminder of what it means to be a lawyer and why the profession is so important to preserving the freedoms so many take for granted.