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Nir Golan on Why the Most Important Skills for the Lawyers of the Future Are Empathy and Curiosity

Nir Golan is the former General Counsel and Global Head of Legal Operations at Attenti Global. Based in Tel Aviv, Nir is an attorney and legal operations professionals focused on advising and working with multinational technology and innovation-based companies and startups on their global transactions, operations, and activities. He is a strong believer that working in the legal industry is about problem-solving, creating solutions, and delivering business outcomes. Nir actively speaks and writes thought leadership on the future of law, legal innovation, and legal operations. He advocates for innovation and law for close collaboration and co-creation between firms and customers and bringing new non-legal skills methodologies and mindsets to the legal profession. You can follow Nir on LinkedIn or on Twitter @lawheroez.

ZERØ: Can you provide us with more detail about your background and career trajectory?

Nir: I’ve been an attorney for about 15 years, mostly in tech, which is the most important and significant industry in Israel. From day one of my legal career, I’ve been working with startups and venture capital firms. I’ve worked both in private practice at the biggest law firm in Israel and in-house for various tech companies. And I spent the last three years focusing on legal operations and legal innovation. This is something that I’ve become very, very passionate about. I really believe that’s something that needs to be fixed and requires a very strong focus. I think that now a great time to focus on this.

ZERØ: Based on your experience working in-house, what have been some of your observations of common mistakes or things that traditional law firms should be doing differently?

Nir: In the last ten days, I’ve been speaking with a lot of different global firms about this question. And I think the answer, the thing that they aren’t doing, is that they’re not speaking with their customers. Pre-COVID, I spent a lot of time working with a global panel of law firms, and the biggest issue that I had was that they were always in a hurry to tell me what we needed and the right solution for the problem without spending enough time actually asking the right questions or really trying to understand our problems and our business issues. This disconnect has been amplified by COVID.

I think that if you speak with a lot of General Counsels, they’ll tell you the same thing. The issue is that they haven’t been contacted by their firms during this time, saying, “Hi, how are you? Is there something that you need? What can we help you with?” We haven’t had this kind of initiative by firms. Most of the work that firms have been doing has been around webinars and sending long memos around force majeure, but there haven’t been any initiatives around just giving buyers and General Counsels a call.

When I asked when asked firms why they do that, they say, “Well, you know, we’re afraid. we don’t want to, we’re not sure how you’ll respond, we’re scared that you’ll ask us something that we don’t know the answer to, we feel that we might be bothering you, etc.” When I hear those answers, I’m reminded how big the disconnect is between firms and customers. Because for firms to really have a relationship with their customers, this is the first basic human thing they should be doing. Everything is so overwhelming now, and General Counsels will remember someone reaching out during this time. At the end of the day, we just want to feel that we’re not alone.

ZERØ: It’s especially interesting that lawyers are suffering from this issue of being indecisive about whether to connect or not, because professional services are about humans delivering services to other humans.

Nir: It’s a fascinating disconnect. Lawyers are used to being the experts and telling customers what they need and what they want. They are just so afraid of being in a vulnerable position of not knowing and needing to experiment. I think that’s also one of the reasons that we have such a lack of innovation in the legal industry. The only way to evolve is by trying new things and by not always knowing the answers to the questions that you’re about to ask. And this lack of curiosity is a problem. We are human to human-to-human industry, and yet, it often feels like the people providing the services lack the human skills to provide them.

ZERØ: Which fundamental skills do you think many of today’s lawyers are missing in their delivery of legal services?

 Nir: Before, it was all about excellence and being an expert in your field. Today that’s a given. The market is shifting from delivering legal knowledge to delivering an experience. Two of the really important skills that are lacking are curiosity and willingness to experiment, and empathy. By empathy, I mean really putting yourself in their shoes. I once asked one of my customers what he really needs from legal, and he said, “All I need is to just to see things from my eyes.” And it’s something that has stuck with me. That’s what we really want: for you to deliver your services in a manner that I can easily apply it to my business. Doing this requires having open and deep conversations with customers and asking open questions.

It’s also important to have technology skills and be open to experimenting with new technologies that can help us provide a better output for our customers. Young lawyers should ask, “Is there a better way of doing this? How can we deliver this better?” These are the questions that I like to ask myself when I work with customers. And when we talk about innovation, this is exactly what it’s all about. It’s about having this curiosity, having this empathy of spending this time and understanding what the needs are so that we can, together with the customer through experimentation, co-create and together build something that the customer actually needs.

ZERØ: What you’re saying is very sensible, but many traditional law firms aren’t currently operating this way. What should they do to change the entrenched practices that are holding them back from truly helping their clients?

Nir: Firms should be more focused on understanding problems before jumping into solutions. There are a lot of firms that want to produce press releases around innovation and technology, but they haven’t done the basic thing: spending time with our customers to understand what their problems are. The best way to tackle that would be to spend time with customers. It can be a great source of differentiation because our industry is very much about imitating what other competitors are doing making it very hard to find firms that are willing to be the first ones to do something. This follower mentality dissuades any real innovation and differentiation—and the real source of differentiation and, and innovation is our customers. We need to start there, by understanding what they need, and together with them, create something with them.

I think that one of the reasons for this common mistake is that we don’t have enough people in the delivery operations or innovation side in firms who have actually been a customer. It’s usually people who are exclusively on the provider side. Another big problem related to this is that we have a lack of diversity in firms. There are always the same kind of people with the same kind of thinking and then we’re surprised that we don’t have a different kind of solutions. And so I think if firms would try to do something different, it would great to bring someone from the buyer side, someone who was on the customer side into the team. This person could understand the customer and bring that voice and really be a game-changer to a firm.

We also don’t have enough multi-disciplinary teams in law firms. So we were talking about skills before, how do you learn these skills? Where do you learn these skills? In my experience, at least, I would have loved to have the business developers and the marketing person, or the innovation person, in the room when I’m speaking with a partner. Someone who knows how to listen and brings a different experience and skill set. And that’s something that’s consistently missing in my interactions with many law firms. Today, more than ever, in order to create innovative solutions and services, we need an innovative team. That means a diverse team of people comprised of different disciplines. The more diverse the team, the better the chances you will develop a solution that the customer can use.

This is what I like about service design. One of its core principles is to co-create, alongside a customer, using multidisciplinary teams. And I think this is something that is really lacking. And if we want to teach lawyers new skills, of empathy, of curiosity, and of collaboration, there is nothing like learning directly from people with other experiences and skillsets. Many law firms have this amazing source of innovation right there under their nose, and they’re not using them.

ZERØ: It sounds like what you’re describing is repositioning legal services from providing purely advisory services to providing solutions to concrete challenges.

Nir: The world is changing, and today is about providing a legal experience. Customers want a service that is fit for their needs and fits their industries, and they want an efficient and effective solution to their problems. And to do that, you need more than just lawyers—you need UX people, and you need tech people, and you need marketing people. And if we’re trying to really differentiate ourselves and innovate, I think this is what we should be doing. More than ever, people are looking for more efficient and cost-effective solutions, and I can’t think of a better time to do this. And some companies are already doing it. The Big Four are a great example because they have these types of multidisciplinary teams designing a service together. And it’s working.

ZERØ: When working to improve their delivery of legal services, what should law firms be looking for with respect to technology?   

Nir: Firms shouldn’t be starting with technology in mind. Whenever I would purchase a legal technology, I would sit with my IT team, and our first reaction was often to ask why we needed the solution that was being shown to us. There are great technologies out there, but a lot of the discussions start, wrongly, with which technology should be used when we talk about innovation? The discussion needs to start with building an understanding of our need and our problems—which entails speaking with customers. After having these discussions, we can work on developing a better understanding of the problem and putting together a plan to collaborate with the right people to evaluate the world of possible solutions and understand what’s out there. Only once we understand our needs should we try to assess if technology can fill the gap.

One example is that, ever since COVID hit, everyone has been talking about collaboration technologies. Having come from the world of videoconferencing, I had been dreaming of the day that people would embrace video this way. But the presence of collaboration tools doesn’t necessarily lead to real collaboration. I’ve seen many cases where a company has five different collaboration tools, and there’s no collaboration. It wasn’t a pretty sight, because we need to understand what the problems are before buying technology. This is why the people on the process and the culture side are just so key. If your staff isn’t willing or able to work together, no technology will create collaboration between them.

ZERØ: So in the wake of COVID-19, what should law firms be doing to help their lawyers listen better?

Nir: That’s a million-dollar question. To return to what I said before, we need the right people to facilitate this change. Lawyers can’t be expected to know and do everything by themselves. There are some amazing people working in law firms; and if there aren’t, then we should bring them over—those people who have the ability to really facilitate collaboration with customers. The winning firms will be the ones that understand the importance of listening and collaboration with customers. I’ve had so many conversations recently with law firms about this, and they understand now more than ever that they’re missing the mark. The webinars are not enough; they’re not working. And people are not engaging with all of the content. I think that the needs and the standards are changing with COVID, because people are in a big hurry. Everything is much more complex, and budgets have changed, meaning that we need to come up with different solutions. And if you don’t have these conversations, you won’t know what your customers need, and you won’t be able to solve their problems.

ZERØ: How should young attorneys prime themselves to be the type of lawyer who can succeed in this context?

Nir: It’s a really complex time to be a young lawyer because there’s so much change and so much hype around us. It’s difficult to know who to listen to. One thing that is really key these days is that they should be doing a lot of learning. And when I say learning, it’s not just learning about the legal field. Social media is a great resource because there are a lot of people from different disciplines and different backgrounds who are sharing a lot of knowledge. I would try and follow people who have something different to say and who don’t necessarily agree with my viewpoint on things.

The second thing to do is to spend time collaborating and working with people from different backgrounds and fields. If there is a way for you to hang out with people (virtually or otherwise from other backgrounds at the firm, there’s so much that you can learn. And if there is a way to be part of a project that involves a multidisciplinary team, definitely go for that. We learn the most through these kind of projects and collaborations.

There are some great initiatives out there that are solving these problems involving multidisciplinary teams, like Law Without Walls. This program was set up by Michelle DiStefano at the University of Miami School of Law. The idea is to mentor young law students around new skills and upskill lawyers by putting them together in an interdisciplinary team and letting them solve real-world issues. The program also has some really interesting mentors from different backgrounds. It’s supposed to be an amazing experience, and it’s endorsed by a number of law firms. And this is just one example.

Today, being a good lawyer is really about learning. This applies to young lawyers and to more experienced lawyers. We all need to learn and unlearn and relearn.

ZERØ: What is your vision for the law firms of the future?

The law firms of the future will understand that the delivery of legal services isn’t about the lawyers, it’s about the customers. The firms of the future understand this and will bring the talent in to create those multidisciplinary teams that can deliver these services and experiences. A lot of this will require new collaborations with customers and with different providers. There will be other players in the legal ecosystem that the clients need. Putting firms, vendors, and customers in a room together will help to really solve the customers’ problems. It’s the firms that understand this and that are brave enough to experiment who will succeed in this co-design and collaboration. This is where the future is going, with everything that entails. And all of these different new services and products will bring in new revenue streams and new business models and new ways of working with a customer. And I’m excited to see this change play out over the next few years.