The legal profession for millennials

23 Feb 2017 | 9 min read

Technology is changing the legal profession, and the next generation of lawyers will practise law in very different ways. We talked to a range of experts to find out how young lawyers can best position themselves. This article forms part of our special report into the future of law. Open the report here.

Emerging lawyers, emerging technology

Developments in technology are shaping every aspect of modern life and the legal profession is by no means immune from this. In all likelihood, ‘law’ as we know it will be significantly changed for the next generation of lawyers. There are already reports that the increased use of tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), predictive coding and automated contractual drafting to carry out routine legal services will result in fewer junior lawyers being needed for this work in future. While this may bring increased opportunities for related roles such as legal technology professionals, lawyers themselves will need to be doing a very different job from their predecessors.

There is a tendency to assume that the intellectual make-up of lawyers will evolve naturally as technology moves on, but this is not necessarily the case, as Matt Ballantine, consultant at Stamp London, explains ‘there’s a cheap analysis today that millennials ‘get’ tech in a way that earlier generations don’t. This is nonsense— it’s like saying I should ‘get’ (and now drive) cars in better ways than my parents.’ Stephen Turner, founder of Lawyers of Tomorrow, agrees, ‘millennials may be good at consuming single-purpose applications, such as social media, but no one gets a free pass when it comes to complex, multi-purpose commercial software where the user has to do something productive, or progress through various stages.’

This article forms part of our special report into the future of law. Open the report here.

The changing face of law

Some might argue that advances in technology are only relevant to practitioners in certain areas of law, but it is only a matter of time before developments mean that all lawyers will need to get to grips with what technology can do. Andrew Moir is head of the global cyber security practice at Herbert Smith Freehills and believes that lawyers, whatever their practice area, have an obligation to keep up with technology, ‘there have always been areas where an understanding of both the law and technology is helpful, such as patents, IT contractual disputes or cyber security. But now we’re increasingly being instructed on the legal aspects of cutting edge technology, such as blockchain, electronic signatures, artificial intelligence and data analytics to name a few. Before we can advise on these sorts of developments, we really need as lawyers to understand the technology behind them.’

Technology is already changing the way that legal services are being delivered, streamlining processes and bringing greater efficiencies. By passing these savings onto clients, firms can gain a competitive advantage in the market place. But could this technology also reduce the need for legal services altogether? Matt Ballantine explains, ‘If I buy commodity software services with a credit card from Salesforce or Google, there’s no contractual work to do. If I license content with Creative Commons I’ve negated the need for an IP lawyer. If I’m sealing my deals with blockchain then, well, who knows what a lawyer will still need to do?’

‘And then there are swathes of emerging technologies, from the Internet of Things to autonomous vehicles, to augmented reality and no one quite knows the impact they’ll have on general business. Lawyers need to understand these things to help spot opportunities, not just waiting for what happens to happen.’

A new skill set

Some have suggested that lawyers will require a new skill set. Intellectual rigour, attention to detail, and tenacity, alongside analytical, communication and people skills— traditionally seen as the bench-mark of aspiring young lawyers—while still vital, are beginning to look insufficient, and will need to be accompanied by a range of new skills, not least a working knowledge of technology. Stephen Turner identifies five core aptitudes that the next generation of lawyers will need in order to be successful:

  • Think like a business person
  • Acquire soft skills, emotional intelligence and technology skills
  • Communicate your knowledge, ideas and value
  • Develop a personal brand and profile
  • Form strong relationships with clients and employers

And not only is it a skill set that is needed to change. Matt Ballantine argues that there is a mental shift that also needs to take place: ‘A recent report claimed that lawyers as a group have a lesser ability to deal with uncertainty than other professions. That’s the thing that needs to change more than anything else. The future is uncertain and in many ways unpredictable. Coming to terms with that, and developing strategies to take advantage, is key to success.’

All on board

For junior lawyers it may not always be that easy to find a culture of adaptability in the workplace from which to learn. There can be huge scepticism that the benefits a new technology will bring will outweigh the effort required to learn how to use it. Many UK law firms, particularly when compared with the US, have a tendency to be slow off the mark in the area of technological change, often playing catch up rather than forging the way. Stephen Turner recalls his early days as a lawyer, ‘I can remember going to an interview in 1994 at a firm that did not have a fax machine—as a matter of policy. The partner interviewing me said that if the firm had a fax it would allow clients to contact them any time of the day and this was something to be firmly resisted.’

Not all law firms are in the technology-resistant camp, with some actively seeking to increase their technical expertise, such as Herbert Smith Freehills which runs a recruitment programme specifically aimed at scientists. Andrew Moir explains: ‘We’ve long been recruiting lawyers from a range of backgrounds. Some will have technical backgrounds (mine’s in physics and software engineering, for example). All bring different skills to the profession and we pride ourselves on our diversity.’

The change in the way the profession works is making law an increasingly attractive option for those seeking a career with technology, and the more tech-savvy lawyers there are, the more the culture of an entire firm will change.

This article forms part of our special report into the future of law. Open the report here.

Room for improvement

But what about those who enter the profession through the ‘traditional’ route? Paul Maharg, Professor of Law at the Australian National University College of Law, believes that law schools must embrace technology in both course content and methods of teaching. However, this is rarely seen, as Paul explains: ‘for their part, most law schools continue with the structure and content of mid-twentieth century educational programmes…caught between print-bound cultures that depend on large lecture theatres, 50 minute lectures, unwieldy lecture and tutorial models, cumbersome forms of written exams and elderly admin systems.’

‘for their part, most law schools continue with the structure and content of mid-twentieth century educational programmes…caught between print-bound cultures that depend on large lecture theatres, 50-minute lectures, unwieldy lecture and tutorial models, cumbersome forms of written exams and elderly admin systems.’

He believes that far from training young lawyers to be successful in the twenty-first century, law schools as they stand are in fact doing their students a disservice and placing them at a disadvantage, both when seeking employment and throughout their professional lives. ‘We do so little in our law programmes to enable students to understand and shape digital technologies, for their own education and that of others. Nor do we help them understand the profound effects that digital is having on society in general, and not just on the economy but on how it is redefining qualities such as professionalism, and the effects it is having on our personal and emotional lives.’

Stephen Turner agrees, ‘there is a real danger that the next generation of lawyers could have a tech skills deficit, so my suggestion is that we act now to help the next generation achieve their full potential by offering them training in the new technologies.’

A legal playground?

All this points towards the fact that, unless things change, the lawyers of the future, as with the lawyers of today, will have to be proactive in keeping up with the latest trends and technological advances, making the most of every opportunity for training. Ultimately, it is likely to be those who not only understand technology but—more importantly—have a grasp of its possibilities and how it can be used to shape the legal profession that will ultimately be successful. Matt Ballantine explains what this might look like:

‘I don’t think it necessarily means everyone needs to code (although that might be useful). But understanding the art of the possible with emerging technologies is vital. The established professions are being reshaped by technology, and those that can help shape the future direction will be those who can forge a successful future.’

‘Having a strong network, and a network that is diverse in skills and industries is a good start. As is nurturing a curiosity in the new, which is something I haven’t seen in great spades in the profession. Finally, developing a willingness to experiment and explore new technologies, starting with an attitude of ‘what could I make this do?’, rather than just ‘what does this do?’. I talk about this as fostering a spirit of play, although I’m not sure many law firms would regard themselves as playgrounds!’

This article forms part of our special report into the future of law. Open the report here.

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