When we wrote our second blog post on the Future of Legal Work back in 2020, we were aware that what was once considered “normal” was fading into the background. In responding to COVID-19 and its global impact, organizations have uncovered new ways of operating, and law firms are no exception to this.
So as 2022 quickly approaches, we ask once again, what does the future of legal work look like?
The Future of Legal Work is Now
Last year we noted that some lawyers may think they are immune to the digital revolution brought on by COVID-19 because the attorney role is already so specialized and highly-trained. However, this proved to be incorrect. Clio’s 2021 Legal Trends Report observes that one of the most important points of reference in the past two years is the mass adoption of cloud technologies such as virtual meetings, data storage, online payments, electronic documents, and more. The report further notes that at least 95% of law firms plan to “continue to use these technologies beyond the pandemic, which is a clear indication that this technology adoption has become the norm for most firms.” Even if adoption slows, the new standard for technology adoption is set and lawyers who want to be successful need to stay ahead of the changing market or be left behind entirely.
There are several factors that have drastically altered what is expected from attorneys:1. Automation—of anything that can be automated
2. Millennials becoming the crux of the workplace
3. Evolving client needs
4. The shift to the cloud
Because of these factors, traditional attorney methodology and legacy practice focuses are quickly becoming obsolete; some predict that nearly half of all lawyer roles will disappear in the coming decade.1 So how do lawyers navigate these inevitable paradigm shifts and solidify their relevance and necessity in a rapidly shifting market?
Bridging the Legal Education Gap
Attorneys Need Business Skills, Not Just Legal Skills
With the exception of a few elite attorneys, knowledge of law alone is not enough for a thriving legal career. More than ever before, clients are facing heavy pressure to achieve more results with less money, and they are rethinking their needs with regard to their legal services. Clio’s 2021 Legal Trends Report states that any law firm today needs to “acknowledge that—in less than two years, through cloud-based technologies—our communication infrastructure has evolved immensely, to the point that we need to reevaluate the nature of interaction within the context of legal service delivery, and what it will look like both now and in the years to come.”
So what do these changes look like?
The Clio report notes that 79% of consumer respondents saw the option to work remotely with a lawyer as a positive factor on their decision to hire that lawyer—a huge increase from only 23% of consumers being open to the idea of working with a lawyer remotely back in 2018. In addition, consumer preference for video conferencing (58%) for first meetings or consultations have similarly jumped since 2018, becoming the most viable option after in-person (76%) and phone (70%). Furthermore, online payments (66%) are the most preferred form of payments, followed by automatic payments (61%) and payments via mobile app (61%).
With these new client expectations for tech-enabled interactions, we can only expect that more legal firms will adapt in order to work more efficiently and provide better services to clients.
Law Schools Can't (or Won't) Fill the Skills Gap
Law schools have widely failed to adapt to today’s rapidly changing environment, creating deep learning gaps within legal education. The majority of law schools have kept their doctrinal approach intact, with curricula staying focused on knowing the law as it is. But these traditional models no longer fit the market and thus may not be adequately preparing future attorneys for success. The pandemic has also undoubtedly posed challenges to the very way that law schools educate and structure their programs, with some saying that many law schools were slow to adapt to digital solutions before the pandemic, and have only recently accelerated that adaptation because the pandemic forced them to quickly implement online class delivery.2
The ultimate goal of the majority of law schools and legal education programs is to guide attorneys through the ways in which they can ‘think like a lawyer’ and select a focus in order to become practice-centric. Practice skills, business skills, operational skills, and technology skills—well, those are someone else's problem. The majority of education for law schools has also taken place in physical classrooms, and while some have managed to conduct learning uninterrupted, it remains to be seen how long law schools will maintain their digital learning environments once students are able to safely return to the classroom.
Law Firms Aren't Filling the Gap
Traditionally, new attorneys gained practical skills under an apprenticeship model, learning from mentors at their law firms. But with partners under more pressure to bring in business and bill, mentorship opportunities are fewer and farther in between. Many (not all!) firms have a sink-or-swim mentality, with the "swimmers" expected to just "figure it out." Those that do have training programs often use traditional tools from legacy vendors that haven't kept up with advancements in educational theory and technology—they simply are not interactive and experiential. In this environment, getting the right experience to drive your career forward can be a matter of luck and timing.
In fact, despite the emphasis on the need to adopt new technologies in order to enhance their services, Clio’s 2021 Legal Trends Report stresses that firms believe they should spend more on their legal staff: “Despite the many innovations in legal technology, legal services will remain a people-based service, and investment in technology should be focused on enhancing the legal products and services provided by legal professionals while maximizing their ability to work efficiently… the data suggests law firms believe they should be spending more on people.”
So ask yourself this: from a career development standpoint, is your firm investing in you? Can you rely on them for the mentorship and training you need? Do you want your success to be a function of outside forces or your own strength, motivation, and hard work?
An Opportunity for Motivated, Adaptable Attorneys
High-caliber attorneys with specialized business and technical skills remain in short supply, meaning that excellent opportunities exist for those who are able to adapt to this market. How can you be one of them?
1. Adopt a learning-for-life mindset and stay in tune with the market and its rapid evolution. Building skills and sophistication in tech-based realms like data analytics (and anything to do with data, quite frankly), as well as a keen understanding of current business processes and project management is vital.
2. Embrace the idea of personal branding and the necessity of acting like a business entity with multiple offerings tailored to the market around them, as opposed to a cog in the wheel of big law.
3. Seek experiential legal education programs that are in tune with market needs and offer learners real-world practice and the chance to evolve into a specialist in an area that is in high demand today, such as data, technology, and cross-border/multinational issues.
4. Seek out mentors with whom you can have frank conversations about your career and the legal industry itself. But remember that many of these mentors came of age in a much different legal market. Consider expanding your stable of mentors beyond the legal industry—talk to people who have been successful in business development, technology, marketing, and other areas.
Adaptability and a deep understanding of market needs has become the mark of a successful attorney in this era, and that trend will only continue. Attorneys who understand the changing needs of the market, embrace technology, and are able to evolve quickly via on-demand educational resources will win no matter what the future of legal work looks like.
Stay tuned for more coverage of the changing legal marketplace and the role of continuing education in helping legal professionals embrace the future of legal work. To schedule a time to learn more about how AltaClaro can empower your associates to hit the ground running, schedule a demo here.