What are the skills required of lawyers in the 2020’s? Is traditional legal education equipped to provide them and, if not, how, where, and from whom will lawyers acquire those skills? How will the profession’s insular culture adapt to full-throated collaboration with allied legal professionals essential to the delivery of customer-centric, data-driven, efficient, accessible, value-driven, impactful, and scalable legal services? These are pressing questions that are—or should be—front and center for the legal profession and the industry. Here are some answers.
Legal Knowledge Is Table Stakes: Augmented Skills Are Required
For most lawyers, legal knowledge will become a skill, not a practice, during this decade. The practice of law, long defined broadly and exclusively by lawyers, is now largely a consumer-driven determination—especially in the corporate market segment. Practice activities are shrinking and the business of delivering legal services is expanding. Some reasons include: client need for multi-disciplinary, data-driven, holistic risk analysis requiring other professional skills and competencies; automation; the “productization” of legal services; the rise of legal operations; and, in some jurisdictions, re-regulation.
The distinction between legal practice and the business of delivering legal services is more than a semantical one. It involves different skillsets and mindsets that impact legal education and training. In the UK, for example, the list of “reserved services” requiring licensed attorneys has been pared down to six categories. Effective 2021, candidates sitting for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), are no longer required to attend law school. In the US, corporate legal buyers are reevaluating when, to what degree, from what delivery models, and at what price licensed attorneys are required to perform what were once described as “legal” tasks. Law schools are generally impervious to these systemic marketplace changes. Most are preparing students for careers that are vanishing.
Legal knowledge has become table stakes for lawyers. Lawyers must also have augmented skills that include: business and data-analytics basics, project management, and a grasp of how technology is applied to legal delivery. Lawyers need not become experts in each of these areas, but they must have a basic understanding of them. These are now tools of the trade, and lawyers will be collaborating with others in the supply chain expert in them. The profession is part of a broader, more diversified, diverse industry. Industry culture is more customer-focused, collaborative, data-driven, agile, and output-oriented than lawyers are accustomed to. They must adapt because law is no longer about lawyers; it is about clients/customers.
The ”hard skills” required of lawyers are only part of their expanded oeuvre. They must also possess “soft skills”—a misnomer because they are equally important as hard ones. A partial list includes: emotional intelligence—people skills, collaboration, cultural awareness, empathy, and an ability to communicate effectively with clients. Note to lawyers: jettison the legal speak; don’t try to act like a lawyer— be a compassionate, empathetic human being with legal training; recognize that legal exposure is one among many risk factors evaluated in business decisions; provide concise, data-driven analyses that include recommendations responsive to client objectives; and remember the service component of law and approach problem solving from the client/customer perspective.
The 2020’s will not be the end of lawyers but the start of a reimagined legal industry built for the digital age.
The End Of Law School Hegemony
Law schools have long been the sole providers of legal education. Law schools, like law firms with whom they have had a long, symbiotic relationship, have thrived on the lack of competition, accountability, and pressure to modernize. That’s changing.
The exorbitant cost of law school in the US and the crushing debt burden it imposes on most students, coupled with a gloomy pandemic-induced job market, is causing many students, to withdraw from or defer law school admission. Widespread reports of “poor student outcomes,” a euphemism for inadequate training and eye-popping under/unemployment data, is another reason. Law schools are no longer immune to price, market conditions, and competition.
Covid-19 and the legal Academy’s quick shift to long-resisted online learning confirms legal education can be acquired outside the classroom— and the traditional law school model. Companies like Hotshot Legal, a digital learning platform offering a suite of interactive, high quality, on-demand legal and business courses, is one example. Leading law schools, firms, and in-house departments are collaborating with Hotshot to fill curriculum and knowledge gaps quickly, successfully, remotely, and cost-effectively. Hotshot and other online learning companies provide a glimpse into the future of legal education and training.
Does this spell the end of law schools? Short answer: no, but there will be a thinning of the herd. There will be lower and mid-tier law school closures, mergers, and, collaboration with industry/prospective employers to create fit-for-purpose curricula. Elite schools will survive and thrive. They will continue to draw the top students and scale by offering a suite of online courses and certificate programs. From the buyer/student perspective, why not learn on-demand from “the best,” earn a certificate from an elite brand, and pay a fraction of the cost of in-person classes at inferior schools?
Business Steps In
If law schools are not stepping up to meet the needs of students and alums in need of broader training and upskilling, who will? The business community is proactively responding in other industries and is beginning to do the same in the legal sector.
Google, IBM, Amazon, and a growing number of companies well along the digital journey recognize that traditional higher education is not preparing most students with the skills required for many existing and future jobs. Google has teamed with Coursera to offer a subsidized online IT support program that has already enrolled 75,000 students. Google’s investment does good and allows the tech giant to do well. It enables participants to circumnavigate costly, protracted, college and university degree programs and compresses the time to make them market-ready. It also creates a pipeline of diverse, qualified applicants for entry-level IT positions—whether they work at Google or elsewhere.
Amazon will invest $700 million to provide upskilling training programs for one in three—100,000— of its employees across the U.S. This enormous investment in human resources underscores the speed of business change and the need to upskill the workforce to meet it. The investment in people is also a reminder that even the largest, most advanced technology companies rely on skilled people—not solely machines—to deliver customer impact.
There is a growing body of evidence that legal providers and others in the legal ecosystem will fill the void created by law schools. It’s not just where and at what price legal knowledge can be acquired that will change, but it is also broadening and diversifying legal education to align it with the demands of legal buyers and those in need of legal services. Law grads must be more diverse, agile, empathetic, and customer-centric lifelong learners. They do not presently learn this in law schools, but they can develop those qualities elsewhere.
That’s precisely what a group of UK-based General Counsel had in mind when, in 2019, they founded the O-Shaped Lawyer Programme. Its aim is “to show that with a greater emphasis on a more rounded approach to the formation of our lawyers, the legal profession will provide its customers with a better service in a more diverse, inclusive and healthier environment.” The pedagogical framework is humanistic and holistic—“a blend of skills, mind-sets, and behaviours.” The O-Shaped initiative takes a career-spanning approach to teaching/training/upskilling, something that law schools have failed to do. This is a reminder that degrees and licensure are no longer the end of formal professional education; they are the beginning.
The Digital Legal Exchange (DLEX) is another example of the business community responding to an unmet, pressing market need. DLEX is a global non-profit learning and training center created to accelerate digital transformation and to align the legal function with business to create value. DLEX draws from internationally recognized thinkers and doers in business, technology, academia, government and law to empower general counsel to drive impact to the business and its customers. It conducts customized workshops where its global, multidisciplinary faculty collaborate with GC’s, their leadership teams, and C-Suite/ business counterparts to solve real-life, real-time business challenges.
DLEX is also a repository of digital learning, research, data, case studies, and thought leadership for member companies and the broader industry. Its diversity, global reach, eminent faculty, member network, and access to resources enables DLEX to tackle real-time, real-life business challenges at scale. These are some of the differentiators that make it unique among efforts to modernize legal education and training. DLEX is the place where companies come to imagine, design, and effect “the art of the possible” for reimagined, impactful legal delivery in the digital age.
Conclusion: Legal Professionals in the 2020’s
Legal practice will no longer be the default career for attorneys. A small percentage will engage in practice-centric careers, but most will leverage legal knowledge and meld it with other skills to pursue different paths. They will be crisis managers, legal process designers, project managers, supply chain experts, data analysts, risk managers, coders, entrepreneurs, and legal technologists, among other things. Automation will eliminate old positions and create new ones. Legal professionals must have the agility and skills to fill them.
The change in what it means to be a lawyer—what they do, for and with whom they work, how and where they work, the tools and resources they use, and the skills they possess and learn—will be quite different by the end of this decade. Lawyers will be one of several categories of legal professionals. They will work in a supply chain with other professionals, paraprofessionals, and machines. Their culture will enshrine efficiency and scale, not labor intensity and artisanship; diversity, not homogeneity; collaboration, not a zero-sum mentality; cultural awareness, not insularity; agility, not intractability; data-based, not gut-driven counsel; and customer-centric, not self-aggrandizing focus.
Just as legal skills, careers, and culture will change, so too will its education and training. Law schools, like legal providers, must demonstrate differentiated expertise, customer responsiveness, value, and impactful, creative solutions to the challenges of training legal professionals to satisfy customer needs. If traditional law schools do not answer fulfill that role, others will.