Originally published in the April 2019 Edition of ABA Law Practice Today.
It’s 2019 and I’m happy to report that lawyers are finally starting to get it. Not all of them, but many attorneys young and old are looking up from their mahogany desks and catching on that technology is, in some way or another, infiltrating every aspect of their practice. But realization and actualization are two very different things, and many are still left scratching their heads, wondering what it all means for them and their careers.
There’s no single forecast for technology’s effect on life in law. It means different things for different people. For some, it’s simply a way to reduce some of the drudgery that comes with being a lawyer. For others, it is an opportunity to stay engaged with the profession that they love and worked so hard to enter, but in a different capacity that offers a change of pace.
As technology has sunk its teeth into the legal profession over the last several years, something interesting happened along the way – something much bigger than technology alone. A cultural shift has emphasized efficiency and optimization over perfection and control. That culture shift has encouraged and enabled us to segment the “how” and “who” of certain tasks within our practices.
This, of course, lends itself to more technology adoption, but it’s also forcing the evolution of service delivery to approaches that are less reliant on the billable hour. As efficiency culture continues to take hold, many practitioners realize that the billable hour is unsustainable. That is largely because the use of technology increases efficiency, and efficiency is bad news for the traditional hourly rate model.
Some firms are challenging the billable hour with alternative fee arrangements that prioritize added-value and service for their clients to keep them coming back. In-house lawyers are also increasingly partnering with alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) and legal operations teams that do some of the heavy-lifting on tasks that don’t necessarily require legal expertise. Even smaller law firms are adapting to this shift by taking advantage of new tech-enabled lawyer marketplaces. These marketplaces allow attorneys to post and bid on project-based work like legal research, brief writing and document review.
The recent infatuation with technology and innovation has clearly given attorneys, firms and legal departments the tools and permission they needed to get more creative in how they execute their work. As a result, we’re starting to see some interesting combinations of human and technology resources.
New Career Paths
As lawyers begin “letting go” of discrete parts of their work to technology and alternative providers, a surge of exciting alternative career paths has followed. For attorneys looking to try something new but maintain a seat at the table, these new work functions assign real value to innovative mindsets, technical skills, and smart risk-taking.
The most prominent new paths are those in technology and legal operations. Many law firms are also beginning to add positions like innovation managers and legal solutions architects, while expanding the scope of the traditional “knowledge management” roles they already had. These newer, non-traditional legal roles are catching on like wildfire, and are giving attorneys the opportunity to use their analytical mindsets in different contexts within their chosen profession.
The legal technology space is burgeoning right now. These career tracks can be an interesting and entrepreneurial path for those that are looking for a more exciting pace. Great opportunities abound in software development, project and product management, sales, and operations for legal tech startups across the country and world, if you have the right skillset.
Even better, if you’ve been waiting to put on your “founder” hat, you’ll find a more hospitable market to test out your ideas if you execute well. I see signs that this field is starting to mature a bit more. Big players like LexisNexis and Westlaw are taking a swipe at some of the smaller, more niche legal technology companies with their own offerings, but with all of the work that still needs to be done, this sector doesn’t show signs of stopping.
For a slightly-more-conservative (but not to be underestimated) approach, attorneys drawn to the business side of the law could consider breaking into legal operations. Legal operations is a fairly new discipline, but it is already making a big impact on the way legal organizations tackle their work. In line with the latest culture shift, this career track is all about optimizing attorney outputs and creating a solid foundation for collaboration, relationship and knowledge management, and decision-making.
The two primary functions of legal operations professionals are typically process improvement and the implementation of technology solutions. This means legal operations professionals need to be methodical, strategic, and very familiar with the ins-and-outs of what it really takes to run a legal function. They also need to be effective communicators and negotiators, as modifying attorney behaviors can be quite the challenge.
A Focus on New Skills
No matter if you’re looking to evolve your current practice or if you’re more motivated to explore newer opportunities, you’ll need to cultivate a select set of skills to make that change. The Delta Model of Lawyer Competence introduced by a powerhouse group of women legal innovators (Natalie Runyon, Alyson Carrel, and Shellie Reid) is an excellent summary of those skills.
The foundation of the “delta” is, of course, the law. It goes without saying that lawyers should be skilled in identifying legal issues, applying the law, and research and writing.
The left side of the model reflects the need for personal effectiveness skills, often referred to as “soft skills.” This category emphasizes qualities like emotional intelligence, character, communication and an entrepreneurial mindset. As more and more fragments of the legal practice are automated or outsourced, personal effectiveness skills will be a true differentiator for attorneys seeking to build and maintain meaningful relationships with clients.
The final category, business and operations, showcases the importance of having skills like data analytics, process evaluation and improvement, technology, design, and project management. More firms are treating legal matters as projects, and more intentionally applying these techniques from other industries–and they’re seeing great results.
For now, these skills give attorneys an edge over more traditional practices. In the future, those that fail to make a meaningful effort to learn these skills will find themselves unable to compete. Thankfully, each of these can be learned, and a growing number of institutions are offering certificate programs and continuing education to bring you up to speed.
Technology and an enthusiastic willingness to experiment with new tools and techniques has enabled a long-overdue culture change for our storied profession. There’s no longer any room to deny it – the legal industry is radically transforming. It is no longer a bifurcated profession of lawyers and non-lawyers, but a cooperative industry tackling the world’s legal problems, one multi-disciplinary team at a time. And that is something to celebrate!