To innovate or (not) to innovate. This article stresses the importance of legal innovation for individual lawyers. It highlights six major trends that demonstrate why you will need different skills to become successful in the next decade.
Exactly one year ago I left my previous law firm because the answer to this question was no. Sure, I worked at a top tier law firm in the traditional sense of the word: strong focus on know how combined with the presence of renowned experts in the field. However, as an individual professional I wasn’t being prepared for the next 40 years of my career (or more, who knows how our pensions will evolve).
Every lawyer, from the solo practitioner to lawyers in large international firms, should ask themselves this question. For young lawyers and law students, this is even more important. Their career will be fundamentally different from those of the current partners in their law firms. The “gates to these partnerships” are closing and traditional business models, based on the billable hour, will be disrupted.
This article stresses the importance of legal innovation for individual lawyers. It highlights six major trends that demonstrate why you will need different skills to become successful in the next decade.
6 reasons why you need different skills in the next decade
The world has changed and lawyers should change with it
The world has fundamentally changed and lawyers should change with it and adapt. We are currently in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution that will lead to exponential changes to the way we live, work and relate to one another. “The pace of change has never been this fast and yet it will never be this slow again” (Justin Trudeau). Innovation, technology and digital transformation will impact and (further) disrupt every sector. The disruption has not fully reached the legal sector. However, disruption is coming, the only question is when. Lawyers need to be aware of these evolutions and be proactive to remain future proof.
New world, new skills
In a new world, lawyers need new skills. The World Economic Forum issued a list of the 10 skills you need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. In 5 years (between 2015 and 2020), 35 % of the skills that were considered important, have changed. Skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, initiative and ideation are and will become increasingly important. Yet, traditional legal work does not prepare us to excel in these skills.
Innovation is what differentiates lawyers from their peers
Innovative lawyers gain a competitive advantage over their peers. Legal knowledge and the ability to interpret the law is not a unique selling point anymore. It is a prerequisite to start as a lawyer. A large number of lawyers are able to interpret and apply the law. The number of lawyers that can actually come up with creative solutions that go beyond the law and are embedded in a changing world is much, much smaller.
Alternative legal service providers (ALSP’s) are the real competitors
Lawyers’ real competitors are not other law firms but Alternative Legal Service Provider (ALSP’s). ALSP’s can loosely be categorized as any non-lawyer providing legal services. Clients require effective solutions for a broad portfolio of legal work. To them, it is irrelevant whether lawyers or non-lawyers are performing this work.
ASLP’s are a multibillion dollar industry and they are growing at an incredible pace. Moreover, these innovators are already delivering law better, faster and cheaper than a traditional law firm. Lawyers that want to be successful should be willing to learn from these ASLP’s.
The Big Four are leading by example
The Big Four are successfully continuing their expansion into the legal services industry. They enjoy a competitive advantage since innovation, collaboration and multidisciplinary teamwork are part of their DNA. Lawyers and legal consultants that are part of the Big Four network are encouraged, trained and equipped to become 21st century-proof professionals. This leads to exponential professional growth, both on the level of the individuals as on the level of the Big Four themselves.
Even today, the “tax and legal work” revenue of any individual Big Four dwarves that of Kirkland & Ellis (the top-grossing law firm worldwide). This demonstrates that the Big Four have the relationships, the scale and the technology to become the world’s largest and best legal service providers.
Clients’ expectations have changed
Clients expect more. The proliferation of new laws lead to increasingly complex legal advice. Moreover, clients are no longer satisfied with a mere interpretation of the law. They want actionable content that is understandable and business oriented.
Clients expect more for less. Decreasing budgets for legal departments put pressure on legal counsels and lawyers alike. Lawyers have to deliver their increasingly complex services cheaper, better and faster.
Clients expect different services. They are looking for preventive lawyering (opposed to traditional reactive lawyering where the problem has to arise first).
Clients expect new services. Our clients operate in the same changed world as we do. They require their lawyers to guide them and expect new (innovative) types of advice. They are looking at us to help manage the change, to leverage technology differently, to partner together collaboratively.
Technology enabled innovation will be key to meet the client’s new expectations. Law firms that successfully embed these in their practice will be able to grow exponentially.
I see why I need different skills, but where should I start?
Even though these evolutions are apparent, most lawyers are not being prepared to become future proof. The majority of law schools, bar associations and law firms worldwide are slow in adapting to these changing circumstances. In general, law is still being taught and practiced in the same way as 40 years ago. At the same time, multiple initiatives are being set-up by true innovators and early adopters, you just have to find them.
If you want to start your legal innovation journey: I suggest the following three steps:
- Read and listen: Be curious and look for articles, books and podcasts that will help you better understand current evolutions (I Included some tips below).
- Connect and share: Look for the early adopters, connect with them and share experiences. These are the people that will make an impact in the next decade.
- Experiment: Try something new like making your own legal tech solution or step away from the billable hour and try a managed legal service. Don’t stop at the awareness part but be part of the change!
Suggested books and podcasts
- 📒Michele Destefano – Legal Upheaval
- 📕Richard Susskind – Tomorrow’s Lawyers
- 🎙Law and technology now – legal talk network
Sources and further reading
- Peter F. Drucker – The Information Executives truly need (Harvard Business Review, January/February 1995.
Thomas Aertgeerts is a qualified lawyer at the Brussels bar.
👨⚖️He is responsible for all legal innovation and technology projects at K law
🚀Co-founder of a legal tech start-up Aeco
👨🎓 Member of the steering committee of two legal tech and innovation programs at the University of Antwerp