by Wiebe de Vries, AIJA Immediate Past President 2018/2019
The future is now for the legal profession. With automation, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, the rise of non-lawyers in the legal profession and the generational shift in the workforce, change is happening faster than in the past. While it’s not without challenges, law firms are slowly forging a path of their own in this rapidly evolving world.
Demystifying technology for lawyers
Many qualified experts feel that technology would replace most of today’s workforce, including lawyers. But none of these experts have come up with a widely accepted replacement to date. The approach to technology should however be different, more positive. Let’s not fear that technology could eventually replace us but look proactively at how we can integrate it into our business model.
As lawyers, we should be looking at how to make good use of it to improve our services and build trust with clients. Our solutions are no longer assessed based on our legal expertise only, but more broadly. Clients expect a greater understanding of their business, faster response time and efficiency. Often the legal aspects are only a part of the solution to clients while the rest doesn’t even involve legal knowledge. We are shifting from the day-to-day practice of law to a more business-oriented model where legal services are profoundly embedded in the business of clients. The good news: technology can help with this shift.
Even better: lawyers start to develop a positive attitude towards technology. But we’re in for the long haul. The International Association of Young Lawyers (AIJA), with the help of the Council of Bars and Law Societies in Europe (CCBE), conducted a survey among international lawyers between the ages of 25 and 45 years old. The findings reveal that compared to 2016, lawyers are less fearful of technology replacing them (decrease of 43%). They also show that almost half of all respondents (42%) are confident that their firms are taking the necessary measures to integrate tech such as artificial intelligence (AI) tools, automation or the cloud into their workflow. However, implementation of technology remains still low.
So, we could say that law firms know what they need to do. And lawyers are most definitely willing to embrace technology. But again, we don’t know yet how to do it. From this perspective, technology providers could do more for the legal profession. And there are plenty of opportunities. According to the same survey, only 3% of respondents agree that the training of lawyers is sufficiently adapting to the changing landscape of the legal market. More training seems required to adapt accordingly and ensure that lawyers know how to use the latest innovations in technology to the benefit of their clients and business.
Working with other legal service providers
As the market for technology-enabled innovations continues to grow, so does the market for non-traditional legal service providers. 86% of lawyers see this as a threat to their profession and believe that firms are more likely to employ non-lawyers to service clients in the name of cost-efficiency and making use of new technologies, according to the survey.
This can be in fact an opportunity to expand the legal service markets of our law firms. The same for interdisciplinary partnerships. There is untapped potential there. Law firms should look more at the industries that are already leading the digital revolution.
Unlocking the mystery of millennials
Another driving force of change in the legal profession is the generational shift in the workplace. Much more impatient, more demanding and keener for flexibility, millennials are here to stay. By 2025, they will account for 75% of the global workforce according to global research. Millennials will soon take over leadership positions and partnerships in law firms. But then how can law firms best manage millennials, a tech-savvy and dynamic generation?
This younger generation is generally marked by an increased use and familiarity with digital technologies. They usually seek organisations that foster innovation, develop their skills and make a positive contribution to society. These features are generally difficult to manage in law firms which are often quite heavily driven by hierarchy.
It was a very different environment in 2005 when I started. In my early days as a lawyer, hierarchy, paperwork, and – maybe - a predominant fear for change and innovation were driving the organisational structure. A four-eyes principle meant that four eyes had to read the same piece of paper and even as a trainee, we needed to sign off on every piece of (printed) e-mail, letter and fax that crossed our desks.
Happily, times have changed. We see law firms slowly but surely adapting to the latest innovation trends in the workplace. The younger generation can be a huge opportunity in this evolution process. Millennials can bring a fresh perspective and new ideas which can have a positive impact on the business and the relationship with clients.
Senior-level lawyers are here to stay for a little while, too. This is why, firms should be looking for ways to ensure collaboration between the generations and create a space for their younger lawyers to grow. Reverse mentoring, for instance, can facilitate a better understanding between the generations. Younger lawyers and their more seasoned colleagues can teach one another about the business and practice of law. This is how law firms can predict the likes, dislikes, ways of working of the next generations and ensure a thriving work environment for all their employees, regardless of their age. However, it seems that it will take some more work for law firms to adequately equip themselves for the younger generation, through such orientation and mentoring programmes or even more flexible working conditions. But I believe that we will eventually get there.
It probably goes without saying that the traditional law firm won’t stand a chance against the numerous changes in the legal profession: boutique firms allow their employees to have access to stellar legal tech innovations on a subscription now and can compete with global firms. The need for big teams to perform a due diligence or discovery is no longer there, which still is one of the driving elements of a traditional law firm business model. What is sure, firms that take a long-term perspective and proactively seek opportunities to embrace innovation will ensure their profitability and sustainability of their business in the future, both towards their clients and their future leadership. As we are so used to solving challenges for our clients, it’s now our turn to solve our own and create a more sustainable future for our profession.