The legal industry has changed. Between technology, alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), the Big Four’s broader move into legal work, and legal tech companies, we are entering a new era. With many observers expecting technology and new competitors to shake up the legal profession, attorneys will remain essential players in the legal industry—but attorneys with non-traditional skills will truly excel in this legal upheaval.
First, technology alone will not turn lawyers into a relic of the past. It’s not unusual to hear the misconception that a lawyer must focus, predominantly, on the law. However, in an era of innovation, collaboration, and creativity in law, lawyers need to acquire new skills. Technology will undoubtedly accelerate change, but the most impactful innovations in law result from a profound transformation in the attorney’s role itself.
Nearly every aspect of the day-to-day legal practice is affected by automation. However, legal services and legal advice, at its core, remains a human profession. Technology alone can’t understand or relate to the client’s legal problems. However, if lawyers want to maintain that edge, they have to become more “client-centered’. In the words of Dan DeFoe:
“When lawyers become more person-centered, and not exclusively problem-centered, the lawyer/client relationship can blossom and improve.”
To become a “client-centered’ attorney, aspiring lawyers need to learn how to exercise soft skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence. In law school, we are never taught how to apply empathy to our practice. Empathy goes beyond just listening to your client while you are billing by the hour. Empathy requires a deeper understanding of how you are providing services to your clients. For example, empathy can be exercised with something as simple as asking your clients if they are comfortable with the pricing model that you provide. Some clients might be pleased with a billable hour model, but other clients may prefer a fixed fee or a retainer agreement. We must never forget that in an era of automation, human emotions will remain human.
ALSPs come in different shapes and sizes. They range from small startups to massive companies with varying business models that differ from traditional ‘Big Law’ firms. ALSPs may employ contract lawyers for specific time-bound needs, or deeply integrate technology to gain efficiency. However, one thing remains true: ALSPs will need attorneys that understand the legal requirements for a specific issue and have additional skills that set them apart. For example, an ALSP might hire an attorney with knowledge of legal project management or experience with process improvement for specific cases. In some instances, an ALSP might need an attorney with document automation skills. However, to remain a valuable player, attorneys will have to learn skills from other professions.
A recent study from Thomson Reuters found that law firms are actively looking to establish partnerships with existing ALSPs. The study also suggested that law firms use ALSPs for intellectual property management, specialized legal advice, litigation, investigation support, legal drafting services, and e-discovery. In other words, attorneys with special skills or knowledge will become relevant for both law firms and ALSPs.
The Big Four, which, in a way, are ALSPs, comprise the largest accounting and audit firms. If you have read recent news, you might be aware that Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC are starting to receive a lot of their revenue from legal services. In some practices, the Big Four’s legal services compete directly with law firms.
One of the Big Four’s main strengths is the ability to hire and recruit lawyers with knowledge in finance, accounting, business, and law. Consequently, to remain competitive, attorneys will need to have basic experience in finance and business. It will depend on the type of attorney you are. For example, if your primary area of practice is family law, maybe you don’t have to become an expert in securities finance. However, learning about personal finance management could enhance your knowledge of financial disclosures for a divorce. If you are a transactional attorney, a deep understanding of accounting and finance will provide you with additional skills to lead successful due diligence for mergers and acquisitions.
Finally, it’s common to hear that legal tech companies are the final piece of the puzzle that will displace attorneys. I believe that’s not accurate. As an attorney with legal practice and as a collaborator with two legal tech companies, that statement is not accurate. Legal technology will not automate the legal profession out of existence. Legal tech will facilitate growth and productivity for lawyers. Successful attorneys will need to embrace legal tech to become more efficient and effective. Attorneys will understand the potential of legal tech to automate routine work to focus on substantive, meaningful, and complex legal work.
Legal services will remain based on trust. To gain that trust, clients will demand a lawyer with different skills. This goes from soft skills such as empathy and humility to hard skills such as knowledge in e-discovery or finance.
Technology must work in tandem with talent. Lawyers must embrace the unique, emerging value technology while reinforcing the value of human skills. Technology, ALSPs, or legal tech companies won’t replace lawyers. But those lawyers that won’t adapt or try to improve their skills will find that they will be at a disadvantage in the broader legal services market.