Around this time last year, HighQ posed this question to a number of legal industry leaders:

What do you believe lawyers and law firms need to do to prepare for the future of legal services?”

This resulted in an interesting and in-depth e-book that delved into a variety of answers, many of which overlapped and all of which challenged us to be and do better. Although the pace of the legal industry tends towards the glacial, I am curious, a year later, to learn how everyone believes we’re progressing, and whether with an increasing focus on AI, a shift in the way we believe legal services themselves will be practiced and transmitted to the next generations of lawyers, and even the entities that are delivering those services, what we now believe lawyers and law firms should be doing to prepare. I suspect that the majority of us (and data reflects this) will say that change is not some far off idea in the future – it is NOW. But that means both that there are things that lawyers and law firm should be doing at present to accommodate the shifting legal landscape in order to remain competitive, and preparations that they will be making in the future – and it’s both of those things I’m interested in hearing about from all of you. 

To recap, let’s look at what some of the contributors to last year’s guide felt would be essential pieces to the future (maybe even the present) of legal services:

  • Caroline Ferguson of Living Lawyers: Ferguson challenges lawyers to embrace two things that are not generally traits that come to mind when you think of the legal industry – curiosity and innovation – particularly around technology, and the environments in which we operate.

    [L]awyers and law firms need to stand up and take a leading role in creating the future…we need to lift our heads from our paper laden desks and take action now. [P]ut a genuine focus on client value and get curious and brave.”

  • Ivan Rasic of Legal Trek: Rasic suggests that lawyers and law firms be open to continuing to learn about everything they do – not just in terms of their practice, but also about the way that they practice law and the best and most efficient ways to deliver legal services to their clients. Rasic leans hard on the idea that firms continuing certain practices because they’ve “always done them that way” is a dangerous model for doing business, especially in today’s marketplace, and firms that are unwilling to think in new, more efficient, client-driven ways will be outstripped by those who are.
  • Rachel Roberts of Burges Salmon LLP: Roberts has a really exciting vision of the future law firm, and we’re starting to see this take shape in some firms already – the focus of her answer was around flexibility and people. The intellectual capital of people will always remain at the core of a firm, no matter how much technology becomes a focus. But firms will no longer be driven by talented lawyers.

    Budding lawyers will be joined by a growing number of other graduates, such as project managers, business analysts and technologists who understand how to deliver complex projects efficiently and effectively.”

    Roberts’ law firm of the future is built on the idea of a tripod – strong, talented people, the calculated, strategic use of technology, and the paramount importance of partnered delivery of services with your clients – and that will ensure success. In order for that to happen, firms and lawyers must be willing to be flexible (which was the focus of my response to HighQ’s question).

  • D. Casey Flaherty of Procertas: Flaherty (who, by the way, continues to author some of the best thought leadership in the industry – like this latest piece, for example) emphasizes the smart use of processes and technology to leverage the legal expertise that lawyers employ. This is something that we’ve been talking about more and more with respect to AI – removing the mundane, repetitive tasks that you hate doing as lawyers anyway, so that you can concentrate on the stuff that makes you valuable as a lawyer (and likely the part that you really enjoy anyway – that piece that machines aren’t going to replace any time soon). So don’t be afraid of employing technology – find out how it can liberate you to focus on the strategic and advisory side of the law that is where you really add value for your clients, and what they’re actually happy to pay you for.
  • Ron Friedmann of Fireman & Company and Prism Legal Consulting: Friedmann echoes Roberts’ earlier comments about the changing makeup of the professionals in a law firm, indicating that this will lead to better service delivery. Each of these groups of professionals are brilliant in their own right, and together, will effectively and efficiently serve clients in a way that builds relationships and brings business into a law firm, and ultimately strengthens the bottom line. Michelle Mahoney of King & Wood Mallesons adds her own voice to this column later too. Friedmann also challenges lawyers to raise the bar to clients’ increasing expectations, which some firms have been doing, but others have been slow to the table. Smart is no longer what differentiates a firm or a lawyer:

    The new mindset must recognize that, in most cases, 90% of matters, clients will assume that most any lawyer they pick will come up with the right answer. Clients want empathy and better service delivery. Empathy means a true understanding of pressures on the client.And better service delivery means, for example, lawyers who return phone calls and emails, who deliver to expected turnaround time, who understand the client’s risk tolerance, and who budget accurately and deliver to budget. It’s simply no longer enough to just have the right answer.”

  • Jordan Furlong of Law21: Furlong’s advice to the marketplace is to stay reactive in order to be proactive. As we discussed above, the data shows that the majority of industry leaders accept that change is either here or is coming (though there is still significant resistance to it). Even now, this remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks, and I’ve talked to some lawyers who are hoping they can just hold on until they retire without having to make any changes, and aren’t too fussed about what that means for the next generation. Wouldn’t it be better if we all considered this to be an exciting time of adventure and change, and a real opportunity to create value, both for our firms and our clients? Furlong says:

    Don’t just wait to see what other firms are doing so you can copy them. Be the firm others try to copy – and do it so well that they don’t stand a chance.”

  • Ari Kaplan of Lawcountability: Kaplan marries Friedmann, Furlong, and Flaherty’s points, suggesting that the lawyers that will be successful in the future are the ones who will take technology and leverage it in such a way to distinguish themselves from their peers by highlighting their expertise, efficiency, customized service, etc. This challenges lawyers to be even more creative than they are now, and to stretch their current skill set beyond the legal field to also being technologists to a degree, but a number of predictions have been made about this new breed of lawyer being the future of the industry. V. Mary Abraham of Broadli, Inc. addresses this in her comments, as does HighQ’s Ryan McClead.
  • Susan Hackett of Legal Executive Leadership: Hackett agrees with Kaplan’s point, and almost takes it a step further, saying:

    SmartLaw has got to be about more than re-making practice – it has to be about re-making lawyers, too.”

    In some ways, part of the struggle in the changing legal landscape is about not wanting to change, or trying to either adapt or transition from being one type of lawyer to another. But what is being asked of the industry instead is to complete throw out everything you’ve ever known and been taught about being a lawyer, and to instead start from scratch. Not in terms of the legal knowledge that you have, but in terms of the transmission of legal services to your clients – to rewrite the book on how you deliver services effectively and efficiently to your clients in a way that truly adds value, and takes the extremely valuable knowledge and business acumen that you have, and packages that up for them in the best possible way. That’s terrifying and exhilarating, and also a little bit exhausting when it comes at the end of a billable day. But that is, at the end of it, the challenge ahead and in front of us.

  • Jeremy Hopkins of Clerkingwell Consulting: Hopkins expects lawyers to increase their emotional intelligence – and this is going to happen only when additional dialogue takes place with clients. To some extent, we already see this with some firms. Some firms are already excellent at client service, and do reach out to their clients on a regular basis to understand what they do well, what their challenges are, what their clients are concerned about, and how they could do more for them. But this dialogue needs to increase. A disrupter to the industry has been CLOC – the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, which has not only brought together those in the legal operations function within clients and law firms, but has also endeavored to open a dialogue among ALL of those in the legal industry. They believe that everyone is better served when we can communicate openly about the challenges and opportunities in the industry. Law firms should watch this space closely and engage further in these conversations – they do make us all better.

There are some things that are clearly in play already – technology has already begun to play a huge role, and some firms are bringing in more technologists and other types of professional staff to round out their human resources offerings – teams are no longer made up of just lawyers, and lawyers themselves are beginning to be challenged to grow beyond a strictly legal background. Firms are using technology to leverage their individual and collective expertise, and to differentiate themselves, though not as widely as will be done even a year or two years from now. Some firms and lawyers are embracing change and finding ways to remake their practices, embrace different models, and engage in new conversations with clients. Clearly there is more to be done, but in some places, significant changes are happening. Given all of the above, what do you see as the future needs and characteristics of lawyers and law firms? Do these statements still hold true, or do they need adapting? Do you think the pace of change is happening fast enough in the legal industry, not fast enough or too fast? What are the challenges that we’re not yet addressing that need to be considered (and soon) – I’m thinking about things like how we train the next generation of lawyers, for example.