Reimagining what makes a successful lawyer

Research technologies are improving daily, alongside an increasingly client-driven culture. As a result, the way lawyers do business is changing. Historically technical and complicated, over the years, the legal profession has become increasingly open. The internet is enabling clients to research their cases even before  meeting their lawyers. Despite legal research, alongside the ability of knowing the law, being a traditionally important aspect of good-lawyering, this is now becoming a pre-requisite. As a result, how should we define what makes a successful lawyer? And how can lawyers stay ahead of the curve in an increasingly client-driven marketplace?

Technology won’t replace lawyers - or will it?

Much has been written in recent years about the importance of innovation in the legal sector and how technology can improve the efficiency of law firms. But commentators often seem reluctant to consider how all these changes affect the job of lawyers, tiptoeing around the potential of certain technologies to make some of the traditional lawyering skills redundant, and often heralding digital transformation with the caveat: “lawyers will continue be as important as ever”. So what is the reality?

The guardians of legal knowledge (no longer)

The Dickensian trope of lawyers as fusty custodians of legal lore, surrounded by dusty tomes and speaking Latin, created a vivid perception which has survived astonishingly well. Although some of the trappings of this image remain the way solicitors and barristers work today has changed immensely. Perhaps a key development which has led to this transformation is the ease of access to legal information. Only a couple of decades ago, in order to carry out effective legal research it was generally necessary to have access to a small library of physical books containing case law, legislation and commentary. Now anyone with an internet connected device can access up to date legal information free of charge with a few keyword searches. This has changed the lives of lawyers, who can now embrace flexible working - but, perhaps more importantly, has furnished the general public with instant access to the laws of the land. The golden keys to the kingdom of legal knowledge, previously the domain of the legal professional, is now in the hands of the “layman”.

Dr Google qualifies as a lawyer

The ease of access to multiple sources of free legal information, often written specifically to help individuals and businesses with no prior legal knowledge, has arguably led to clients who are far more educated with regards to their legal rights. In some cases, DIY law products such as legal document templates, have even taken work away from lawyers for routine tasks such as basic will writing and creation of simple tenancy contracts.

There is quite a clear analogy here between DIY law and DIY medicine. Since medical information rose in popularity to become one of the most searched for types of content online, GPs have been faced with patients who have already consulted “Dr Google” and often turn up at surgeries with printouts and self-diagnoses (which are often wrong). Although the NHS has contributed to the online library of medical information, it also advises patients against diagnosing themselves with any serious conditions and instead seeking an expert medical opinion. Some DIY medical resources (such as NHS approved home testing kits) can free up the time of GPs but, in other cases, a little information can prove to be counterproductive, causing a patient to panic or turn up at surgery with reams of information which takes up more time for GPs. Furthermore, the amount of misinformation can be extremely dangerous.

Applying this to the legal sphere, although DIY law resources are, in certain cases, reducing the need for routine legal work, their existence can conversely generate work for lawyers eg. if a client has got into a legal muddle due to using a template legal document incorrectly. Some technology companies which provide legal templates also refer their customers to lawyers (in case they need bespoke legal documents) - so this can generate new instructions. The GDPR implementation was a good example of how confusing raw legal information can be - and the deluge of self proclaimed GDPR experts was a sobering reminder of the dangers of the proverbial snake oil salesman.

So, what are the key lawyering skills in 2018?

With legal knowledge no longer the preserve of practitioners, the core skills which formerly defined lawyers are gradually morphing to better fit the new requirements of 21st century clients. In-depth legal knowledge is still often a key skill for many barristers (as the surgeons/consultants of the legal profession, to continue with the Dr Google analogy) but for many solicitors (more akin to GPs) their crucial attributes are increasingly focused on:

  • Listening - comprehending the position of a client, distilling their legal issues and understanding how to help them achieve their goals.
  • Legal application - legal information on its own is only one piece of the puzzle - practical know-how of the way legal systems and processes work is vital.
  • Negotiation - this is still a very human-centric skill and is likely to continue to play a key role in lawyering (albeit with the intervention of online dispute resolution).
  • Strategy - having the experience to plan an effective legal strategy in the case of litigation (but legal tech products such as Lex Machina, which can predict outcomes based on case law, can also help here).
  • Lateral thinking - using imagination to solve legal problems creatively (thinking “outside the box”) will continue to set human lawyers apart from even the most sophisticated software for many years to come.
  • The human touch - ask any divorce lawyer about the most important ability to do the job and they’ll often talk about their role as a secondary therapist! In the face on an increasingly automated society, the lawyers who will continue to excel are those who can apply a personal service

Findings from the Bellwether Report 2018: The Culture Clash reports that people skills are considered to be the most important skill set element for law firm success, with the ability to “use legal technology to work smarter” not far behind. Solicitors think that “being outcome focussed, tech-savvy, and business oriented is also increasingly necessary in today’s legal landscape” but conversely these are exactly the same areas in which they believe their peers to be lacking. The survey additionally found a significant concern amongst solicitors at the increasing commoditisation of the legal market (eg DIY legal services) as well as a fear of growing client demand for fixed fees. Overall, the findings seem to illustrate a situation in which the legal profession is struggling to come to terms with a client-driven culture which has spread from retail to the professional services sector, in which clients are willing to shop around and have less loyalty, and where academic ability or status of lawyers is increasingly trumped by business acumen and the ability to achieve client goals efficiently and cost effectively.

What will make the successful lawyer of the future?

With the burgeoning legal tech industry and its spawning of increasingly sophisticated online legal resources, the future of the legal profession is one of continued transformation. The current trajectory of automation looks set to make most legal jobs which hinge on routine tasks redundant in the long run. Much conveyancing work is already handled by computer software and paralegals are being displaced by predictive coding in the field of electronic disclosure. So lawyers cannot rest on their laurels and rely on academic ability to succeed in the future; they need to constantly adapt to technology and differentiate themselves from any type of “AI” - harnessing the available software to improve their professional skills rather than trying to compete with technology companies.

Embracing legal tech (and even driving its development) can help law firms achieve efficiency gains, and taking a more business savvy approach will be crucial to retaining and winning clients who are not shy of wielding their power as being in the driving seat in an Amazon age. But in a society ever more dominated by algorithms, successful lawyers will be those making the most of their human attributes - lateral thinking, negotiation and application of the human touch.

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