What’s A Lawyer Now? Law’s Shift From Practice To Skill

During a recent visit to the National University of Singapore Law School (NUS), I asked a first-year student what being a lawyer meant to him. His response was thoughtful and prescient: “I regard law as a skill. I plan to leverage my legal training and meld it with my passion for business, technology, and policy. For me, law is not about practice.” Out of the mouths of babes!

Why The Practice/Skill Distinction Matters

The distinction between practicing law and engaging in the delivery of legal services—the business of law–is critically important to a wide range of existing and prospective legal industry stakeholders. That list includes: those contemplating a legal career (not necessarily licensure); law students; the legal Academy; allied professional programs (e.g. business, engineering, computer science); practicing lawyers; legal providers; legal consumers; and the broader society.

Why does this distinction matter? Because law—like so many industries—is undergoing a tectonic shift. It is morphing from a lawyer dominated, practice-centric, labor-intensive guild to a tech-enabled, process and data-driven, multi-disciplinary global industry. The career paths, skills, and expectations of lawyers are changing. So too are how, when, and on what financial terms they are engaged; with whom and from what delivery models they work; their performance metrics, and the resources—human and machine—they collaborate with.  Legal practice is shrinking and the business of delivering legal services is expanding rapidly.

Law is no longer the exclusive province of lawyers. Legal knowledge is not the sole element of legal delivery—business and technological competencies are equally important. It’s a new ballgame—one that most lawyers are unprepared for. Law schools continue to focus on doctrinal law even as traditional practice positions are harder to come by—especially for newly-minted grads.

Law firms have yet to materially change  hiring criteria or to accord equal status and compensation to allied legal professionals. Several large firms have recently announced the launch of ancillary business of law offerings. That requires different workforces, processes, technology platforms, reward systems, organizational structures, capital and capabilities from traditional law firms. It also requires client-centricity and an alignment with business that is generally lacking among law firms.  Translation: it’s easier announced than delivered, especially when the law companies are led by law firm partners whose careers have been forged in different structural and economic models.

Lawyers in the early and middle-stages of their careers are caught in the shifting currents of law’s transformation. Legal knowledge is becoming a skill to be leveraged with new competencies. It is no longer, by itself, sufficient to forge a successful legal career. Most mid-career lawyers  tend to be resistant to change even as the necessity to do so becomes more acute by the day. Older lawyers are riding out the change storm and banking they will make it until retirement.

How did we get here and are legal careers  for most a dead end? Spoiler alert: there’s tremendous opportunity in the legal industry. The caveat: all lawyers must have basic business and technological competency whether they pursue practice careers or leverage their legal knowledge as a skill in legal delivery and/or allied professional careers.

Legal Practice: Back To Basics

What is legal practice? It is rendering service to clients competently,  zealously and within legal and ethical boundaries. Lawyers make this compact not only with clients that retain them but also with society for whom they serve as the ultimate defenders of the rule of law. There are three main elements of practice; legal expertise, judgment, and persuasion. Practicing attorneys are in the persuasion business whether they engage in trials or transactions. Persuasion has several elements: emotional intelligence, credibility, command of the legal craft, and earning trust—of  the client, opposing counsel, and the trier of fact in contested matters.

Legal practice was the presumptive career path of most lawyers for generations.  As law firms grew—especially from the 1970’s-the global financial crisis of 2007–fewer lawyers had direct client interaction. Client skills eroded, and the legal zeitgeist turned inward. The attorney’s supervisor(s) became the client proxy. Most lawyers were unaware of the clients’ objectives, risk tolerance, and business challenges. Legal practice, especially for younger lawyers, often involved tedious, repetitious, high-volume/low-value work. Many lawyers became bored, disillusioned, and unaware of what legal practice means from the client perspective.

Generations of lawyers—especially those in large law firms—were high-priced, well-paid cogs in the law firm wheel. Their principal mission was to satisfy billing and realization goals in pursuit of the partnership gold ring. It was not for them to question the materiality of their work or to assess its value relative to cost or outcome. High salaries created a false positive measure of their client value. They were far removed from the client and worked on discrete slivers of matters. This was their “practice.” The firm—not the client—was the entity to serve and to satisfy. Firms focused on profit-per-partner (PPP), not net-promoter score (NPS).

Legal practice for many lawyers has been diluted. That’s not an indictment of attorneys or a slight to their intelligence, diligence, and ability to make better use of their licenses. Susan Hackett and Karl Chapman describe this underutilization as working “at the bottom of the license.” Too many lawyers are doing just that, and that’s one reason why legal buyers are migrating work once performed by law firms to new provider sources. Optimization of value—deploying the right resource to the appropriate task—is a foundational element of business in the digital age. The legal industry is lagging.

Clients continue to pay a premium for those lawyers—and a handful of firms– with differentiated practice skills. This is a narrow band of practitioners that work “at the top of their license” on the highest-value client matters. Legal buyers are increasingly balking at paying such a premium to others. The universe of high-value, “bet the company” work is a small fraction of legal work. This diverges from law’s go-go decades when lawyers and firms perpetuated the myth that all work they performed was “bespoke.”

Regulators in the UK and a handful of other jurisdictions have opened the door to other professionals (“non-lawyers” in legal parlance) handling many tasks once performed exclusively by lawyers. The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) has  winnowed down the list of “regulated activities” –those requiring licensed attorneys– from a far broader range of lawyer/law firm activities. In the U.S., corporate clients are narrowing that list on their own. The myth of legal exceptionalism has been debunked.

The Business of Law Is a Response to Practice Inflation and The Need For New Skills

Corporate clients, not lawyers, now determine what’s “legal” and when licensed attorneys are required (it’s a different but changing story in the retail legal segment). That’s why legal practice is compressing and the business of delivering legal services—the business of law—is expanding. It’s also why so much capital is being pumped into “alternative legal service providers” and why their market share is increasingly briskly. The 2019 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Report on the State of the Legal Market (The Georgetown Report) chronicles the migration of work from firms and highlights several of its causes. The Report calls for “rebuilding the law firm model.”  Law firms continue to be practice-centric and inward-focused (to maximize PPP) in a marketplace that is becoming customer-centric, digital, data-based, tech-enabled, diverse, agile, multidisciplinary, and cost-effective.

Where does this leave lawyers? We are, paradoxically, returning to what it meant to be a lawyer before the ranks of the profession swelled and law firms became highly profitable, undifferentiated big box stores. Practice is once again becoming the province of those lawyers best equipped to engage in it. For the larger universe of the profession, their careers will take a different turn. Most practice careers will morph into delivering legal services—the business of law– and/or to allied professions and businesses. For most lawyers, legal expertise will become a skill, not a practice.

The new legal career paths—and there are many– require new skillsets, mindsets, and a focus on serving clients/customers. Upskilling the legal profession is already a key issue, a requisite for career success. Lawyers must learn new skills like project management, data analytics, deployment of technology, and process design to leverage their legal knowledge. Simply knowing the law will not cut it anymore. The good news is that many lawyers will be liberated from the drudgery of faux practice careers. Armed with new skills, they will be have a plethora of career paths.

Practice in the Age of End-to-End Solutions

The distinction clients draw between high-value legal expertise and everything else in their portfolios explains the marked divide between approximately twenty elite firms and the pack. This small cadre of firms handle a disproportionate percentage of premium “bet-the-company” work and are paid commensurately. It also explains the ascendency of the alternative legal service providers that now handle more and increasingly complex work once sourced solely to law firms. These providers are not yet vying for premium legal work, but they are in the hunt for everything else. They hold a distinct edge over law firms because of their customer-centricity, alignment with business, DNA,  structural organization, economic model, technology platforms, capital, multidisciplinary, agile, diverse workforces, delivery capability, scalability, and cost-predictability and efficiency.

Companies like the Big Four, UnitedLex, Axiom, and Burford Capital  are already home to thousands of attorneys– as well as engineers, data analysts, consultants, technologists, and other allied legal professionals. Their attorney headcount will increase  in the coming years due to client demand and heightening pressure on the non-elite partnership model law firms. For most attorneys that work in these companies, law will be a is skill, not practice. That’s why legal knowledge must be augmented by other competencies to enable lawyers to make the transition from firms. There is also a cultural component to the transformation: success is measured by results and client satisfaction, not by hours billed.

Conclusion

The new legal career is about melding legal knowledge with other competencies to better serve clients and to solve problems. Whether that’s termed practice or delivery, the client is once again the focus. Law is returning to its service roots and that’s a good thing.

What does this mean  to those contemplating becoming a lawyer?  The decision to attend three years of law school, incur six-figure debt (it’s different outside the U.S.), and secure licensure is a personal one that involves many variables. Other paths to a meaningful legal career exist and more will be available in the near future.

Emma Watson

Harry Potter star Emma Watson launches legal advice helpline

Free service includes guidance on NDAs and settlement agreements

A free helpline backed by British actor and activist Emma Watson will offer free legal advice to women in England and Wales who have experienced sexual harassment at work.

The expert guidance is supplied by legal charity Rights of Women, whose female volunteers and employment lawyers will offer callers guidance on what behaviour constitutes sexual harassment, how to bring a claim at an employment tribunal, as well advice on settlement and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Kickstarted from donations from members of the public, including Watson, the specialist service enjoys backing from Time’s Up UK Justice and Equality Fund, and is managed by Rosa, the UK Fund for Women and Girls. It stands as the UK’s only free legal helpline for women facing sexual harassment in the workplace.

The new dedicated telephone line follows findings by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a federation of trade unions in England and Wales, that as many as one in two women experienced sexual harassment at work.

“While sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of violence against women, it has remained a hidden issue with many women believing it was an inevitable part of their jobs or that it would jeopardise their careers to assert their legal rights,” explained Seyi Newell, a senior legal officer at Rights of Women.

By plugging the gap in workplace protection, it is hoped that women will be empowered to hold their harassers and employer to account. Harry Potter star Watson said:

Understanding what your rights are, how you can assert them, and the choices you have if you’ve experienced harassment, is such a vital part of creating safe workplaces for everyone, and this advice line is such a huge development in ensuring that all women are supported, wherever we work.

In the wake of the global #MeToo movement, which has seen women come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, Watson regards this service as a step in the right direction. She continues:

“It finally feels like people are realising the scale of the problem, and I’m certainly hopeful that with global standards such as the recent International Labour Organisation treaty on harassment at work, we’ll start to see a new climate of prevention and accountability on this issue domestically.”

A rise in the number of sexual misconduct cases across the legal profession has resulted in an increased workload for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), according to a recent report.

The regulator has also recently faced mounting pressure from MPs to clampdown on the ‘cover-up culture’, which sees lawyers draft up questionable NDAs to prevent alleged victims of sexual assault or harassment from speaking out.

Brexit: PM under fire over new Brexit plan

Theresa May will make the case for her new Brexit plan in Parliament later, amid signs that Conservative opposition to her leadership is hardening.

The prime minister will outline changes to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – including a promise to give MPs a vote on holding another referendum.

But shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the offer was “too weak”.

Some senior Tories will today ask party bosses for a rule change to allow a no-confidence vote in her leadership.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove defended the PM’s plan, urging MPs to “take a little bit of time and step back” to “reflect” on the detail of the bill – due to be published later today.

Fellow cabinet minister and prominent Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom said she was “looking very carefully at the legislation” and “making sure that it delivers Brexit”.

MPs have rejected the withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU three times, and attempts to find a formal compromise with Labour have failed.

On Tuesday, the prime minister asked MPs to take “one last chance” to deliver a negotiated exit – or risk Brexit not happening at all.

But several Tory MPs have criticised her plan. Among them, Nigel Evans will today urge party bosses on the 1922 committee to change party rules to allow for an immediate vote of no-confidence in Mrs May.

Because the PM survived such a vote in December, the current rules say she cannot face another for 12 months.

The committee has said ‘no’ to such a change before.

But the Conservative Home website has urged people not to vote for the party in Thursday’s European elections if Mrs May is still in post “by the end of today”.