Legal practice—as lawyers have broadly construed it— has long been the touchstone of the profession. That’s why non-practicing attorneys often described themselves as “former” or “recovering” lawyers. The profession controlled the supply of legal talent and used self-regulation to blunt “non-lawyer” competition.
The profession carved up practice territories with purposeful provincialism. Each State—and sometimes districts within it—enacted rules designed to discourage “foreign” lawyers from practicing there. Law was a guild comprised of fiefdoms. This fostered the profession’s insularity, fueled its hubris, and sustained the myth of legal exceptionalism. Lawyers designed a system designed to suit them, not necessarily their clients or society.
Law was all about lawyers. Legal expertise was what they offered and the moat separating the them from the rest of the world. This sustained the profession’s “lawyer and ‘non-lawyer” ethos. Only lawyers could engage in practice, and that’s why it became the profession’s presumptive career path.
The alternative—apart from academics, public interest, and a handful of other law-centric career paths—was transitioning to another field. This was by no means the norm, yet the long, illustrious list of “former” lawyers achieving success outside the profession’s narrow confines confirms that legal training has always been a valuable skill. Earle Stanley Garner and John Grisham, among others, leveraged legal training to become writers. Sumner Redstone and Lloyd Blankfein transitioned from law to business and finance. Wassily Kandinsky, the famous Russian abstract artist, traded his briefcase for a palette. Howard Cosell applied his legal training, raconteur skills, and bombast to engage and sometimes outrage generations of sports fans. The list of lawyers-turned-politicians is a long one, and the three branches of Government and its agencies are well stocked with lawyers.
“Former” Lawyers And Future Lawyers
“Former” lawyers, once outliers within the profession, will soon become mainstream and outnumber their practice peers. In the after-COVID world, legal professionals—of which licensed attorneys are a subset— will handle many functions once considered practice. Many legal services will morph into products, and others will be automated. This will erase many legal jobs but create new ones, too. Legal knowledge will be a plus, but additional skills will be required.
Practice will be narrowed to proscribed to activities requiring legal training and licensure. The UK’s Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA) has created a blueprint, enumerating six categories of reserved legal activities. All this translates to fewer pure-practice careers. Most lawyers will engage in a mix of practice and business of law jobs/gigs. They will have multiple positions and/or gigs during their careers. Agility, fluidity, the ability to collaborate, and cultural awareness will become key lawyer attributes, because the legal function will be more closely aligned with the businesses, individuals, and society it serves. As such, law will cease to be the insular, static profession whose career paths were dictated by the traditional law firm partnership model. As that model erodes, it will impact career paths, education and training, and the perception of what it means to be a lawyer.
Many future lawyers will become what were once self-described as “former lawyers.” They will work in a marketplace where legal knowledge is table stakes. Augmented skillsets such as project management, business basics, and a level of tech proficiency will become competency requirements for all lawyers in the digital age. A law degree and licensure will become the start, not the end, of the professional learning process. Upskilling and a learning-for-life mindset will become requisites for future lawyers, no matter their career path.
Qualified legal professionals will have many career options. The future lawyer might be a crisis manager, legal process designer, project manager, supply chain expert, data analyst, risk manager, coder, entrepreneur, or legal technologist, among other things. Many more lawyers will fill positions that have yet to be created.
For most in the profession, legal training will become a skill, not practice. Their legal knowledge will be melded with other competencies and leveraged to the high-end of their client/customer value. There will no longer be a surfeit of over-educated, high-priced lawyers billing astronomical hours for repetitive, low-value tasks. This is good news both for many lawyers and legal consumers. It’s bad news for the traditional law firm partnership model. In the post-Corona world, “who does what” will be determined by necessary skills and experience, not titles and idle hands. That decision will often be made by legal buyers, not providers. It’s all about the customer in the digital age.
The new legal career will be shaped by legal buyers and providers whose business models respond to client/customer needs. Corporate legal consumers require fast, reliable, data-driven solutions to complex business challenges. They are increasingly indifferent to whether that comes from in-house, outside, or hybrid sources. Nor is the category of service provider—multidisciplinary professional service company, law company, or consultancy— paramount in the new legal buy/sell dynamic. What matters is results, sustained performance, necessary competencies, scale, security, transparency, value, and customer satisfaction. Legal careers will be forged by these criteria, not by provider models.
How Will This Play Out?
The practice herd will be culled, and the ranks of traditional partnership model law firms as well as in-house departments will be thinned. A handful of firms and practitioners with differentiated skills, experience, judgment, track records, and clout will continue to engage in practice careers. They will handle high-value, complex work for which there is a limited supply of qualified talent. That comprises only 1-2% of legal matters but accounts for 12-15% of spend.
The narrow and rarified segment of lawyers with practice-centric careers will be in great demand. Some will practice in elite, brand-differentiated firms that focus on high stakes (“premium”) litigation and commercial matters whose importance demands rarified talent, judgment, expertise, and clout. Others will opt to pursue gig careers via platforms that showcase their skills, experience, and customer ratings to consumers and providers across the globe. They will become free agents in a fluid marketplace where brand association no longer matters as much as one’s skills, experience, agility, and proven track record.
Platform-driven legal talent management companies like Axiom will expand their already formidable talent pool and customer base in the after-Corona world. Their model, culture, and strong customer base will provide a welcome refuge for legal talent seeking new homes—and models— during the forthcoming thinning of the law firm herd.
There will be an acceleration of disaggregation for many categories of tasks once characterized “legal work.” This will disrupt the partnership model as the dominant organizational—and cultural—paradigm for legal service delivery. It will be replaced by a corporate structure and customer-centric/aligned business model that is capitalized, agile, multidisciplinary, and tech-enabled. These providers are fluid in how and with whom they collaborates to answer customer challenges. They will sometimes collaborate with competitors; legal delivery—and culture—will cease to be a zero-sum game.
New-model legal providers will continue to gain market share, expand their footprint, and consolidate. Multidisciplinary professional/legal service companies (e.g. The Big Four), technology and digital transformation companies (UnitedLex), and consultancies (Accenture, McKinsey etc.) and, perhaps, a tech giant will continue to reshape the way legal services are delivered. They will offer a wide range of opportunities for lawyers with augmented skillsets and collaborative, customer-centric mindsets. These providers will work closely with in-house legal departments to reimagine and transform the legal function so that it better aligns with and advances business needs and expectations. They will operate at the speed and data-backed precision of business.
The retail segment of the legal market has the potential to do good and to do well. Companies like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, among others, have tapped into the enormous need for accessible, affordable, legal services that do not necessarily require formal engagement of an attorney. Young entrepreneurs like Josh Browder, Founder and CEO of DoNotPay, are influencing legal service delivery without a law degree. Browder and has team have created a bundled subscription service of approximately one-hundred consumer-oriented self-help tools for $3 a month. These bold new approaches to legal delivery are an answer to pressing, everyday legal problems for tens of millions of individuals and SME’s currently denied access to desperately needed legal services.
The common denominator here is new models and methods of legal delivery that convert labor-intensive, high-priced legal practice to tech-enabled, scalable, easily accessible, and affordable legal products. This is law in the digital age and what will shape legal careers.
Law’s incremental pace of change is about to accelerate dramatically. COVID-19 has established digital transformation as an existential imperative from which the legal function has no immunity. As the General Counsel of a leading UK company put it to me recently, “Incrementalism is dead. There’s no more nibbling around the edges of change. We are experiencing a paradigm shift, and it will happen faster than people think. I know because I’m living it.”
The “death of incrementalism” means, among other things, that the role and function of lawyers will change faster and more profoundly than most could have envisioned. That does not spell, to borrow from my good friend Richard Susskind, the end of lawyers. It does, however, mean that practice careers as we knew them will be rare, and new legal career paths will proliferate.
Lawyers will leverage their legal knowledge and apply it in a myriad of ways across multiple industries. Just as law has opened up to allied legal professionals, business, and technology, so too will other professions, business, and technology engage qualified lawyers for a legion of new roles. There will be many roads leading into and out of the future legal career.