It’s time the legal industry pays more than lip service to embracing diversity, technology, and collaboration with other professionals. We live in a diverse society; an interconnected, interdependent world; and a period when the rule of law, the lynchpin of democracies, is under siege domestically and globally. A commitment to diversity; technology to promote access to affordable legal services; and lawyer collaboration with other professionals is crucial to the profession’s ability to defend and uphold the rule of law as well as to deliver legal services more efficiently, effectively, and to a wider audience.
Why Diversity Matters–Especially Now
Lawyers serve two clients: those that retain them and society. This is not a conflict; it is the essence of what it means to be a lawyer. Lawyers pledge to preserve the rule of law; to uphold the Constitution; and to practice in an ethical manner. Incoming ABA Bar President Hilarie Bass, put it succinctly: ‘Our democracy functions best when there are lawyers prepared to protect it.’ This begs the question: how can a non-diverse legal profession instill confidence in and protect the diverse population it serves?
Diversity is a cultural commitment, not a numbers game. It is often confused with affirmative action which, though related, is policy driven–a means to the end of promoting diversity. Diversity is a cultural tenet, a commitment to inclusion, tolerance, equality, and respect. It is at the core of the way a group defines itself and emblematic of the values by which it defines itself and promotes. And while it is laudable to create diverse law school classes and to hire candidates from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences, it is equally important that, once they are offered admission, diverse candidates are afforded an equal opportunity to succeed. In the legal context, diversity requires an ongoing societal/organizational resolve to identify high-potential diverse candidates; to provide them with mentorship; to encourage and enable them to acquire a sound understanding of the client’s business, objectives, and risk tolerance; provide them client interaction; and meaningful periodic review intended to drive the individual’s success within and outside the organization. Mentorship takes time and commitment–from mentor and mentee. That is largely lacking in the legal industry, especially among large law firms.
The industry must commit to diversity not only because it is morally right but also because it is a pragmatic imperative. Diversity is good for business and a salve for society at a time when racial, national origin, religious, and sexual differences are polarized by the noxious political climate. A diverse legal ecosystem–law schools, firms, service providers, consumers–is particularly important when, as now, our democracy is under assault; access to justice is denied for a majority of the citizenry; equal justice is a myth; and the rule of law is under siege. An element of law’s diversity must be its inclusion not only of diverse lawyers but also those that collaborate with them– technologists, process/project managers, entrepreneurs, educators, buyers and sellers.
Technology has created a generational divide between those that grew up with it and those that are adapting to it. For the former group, technology is a way of life and does not pose the psychological threat it does for older lawyers who grew up–and practiced– without it. As recently as the turn of the millennium, ‘legal technology’ was relegated largely to internal functions such as time and billing records and payables; it was rarely deployed in the delivery of legal services. Law was a labor-intensive profession. Self-regulation reinforced what became not only a method but also an economic model for the practice and delivery of legal services. Lawyers proscribed who could do ‘legal’ work (lawyers); what structure legal services were delivered from (predominantly traditional law firm partnerships); what was required to do the job (lots of billed hours with ‘no stone left unturned’); and what the rate structure was (pretty much the same at most large firms and billed by the hour).
Technology is changing the old legal order. It has led to: disaggregation of ‘legal tasks’; debunking the urban myth that lawyers–and large firms–are the sole providers of legal services; distinguishing legal ‘practice’ from ‘legal delivery’ (an ongoing process); replacing many legal ‘services’–especially regulatory updates, research, and other repetitive tasks involving retrieval and cataloguing of information and data–with ‘products; metrics; new delivery models–notably legal service providers and legal operations, generally; and digitization–an amalgam of technology, process, an inter-connectivity of buyer and seller, and an agile, on-call service dynamic.
The legal profession is grappling with the realization that technology and process are now just as important as legal expertise in the delivery of legal services. All but a handful of law firms and law schools have been slow to embrace this and to adjust by providing training including new skillsets required for meaningful participation in a legal delivery paradigm that combines legal, technological, and process expertise. Many regard technology as a threat–lawyer vs. machine– rather than an opportunity to better serve a wider client base and to liberate lawyers from tedious tasks that do not require their training or rates. Technology is helping to redefine the role of lawyers–what they should be doing, and it it bringing other professionals and paraprofessionals into the process of legal delivery.
Technology is affecting the practice of law by narrowing it to those core differentiated areas of expertise and skills that require lawyers (e.g. representation of clients before tribunals, strategic counseling, and some aspects of commercial transactions). Artificial intelligence (AI) is the new worry for lawyers, but it is nothing more than an element, albeit an accelerant, in a paradigm shift that is redefining how ‘legal’ work is done and which tasks require lawyers. This will not make lawyers redundant, but it will change the way most will work. Fewer lawyers will engage in ‘practice’ and many will leverage their practice knowledge and apply it to the more efficient delivery of legal services.
Legal Delivery is not Just About Lawyers Anymore
Legal practice was once synonymous with legal delivery; lawyers did everything from start to finish. No more. Now there is a legal supply chain, and many tasks once performed solely by lawyers–especially repetitive, high-volume/low value ones–are handled by other resources–either machine or human. Legal practice has become a segment of legal delivery–especially among large corporate legal departments. Case in point: I was invited to speak at 3M’s triennial ‘Global Legal Alignment Summit,’ a gathering of about 500 people from the approximately 160 countries where 3M conducts business. Nearly half were professionals and paraprofessionals other than lawyers. That should tell you something about where efficient legal delivery is headed. The explosive growth and influence of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (‘CLOC’) and the ACC’s Legal Ops group is additional evidence to support the claim that legal delivery is not just about lawyers anymore.
Legal education must augment curricula to train students for the new legal marketplace. Lawyers today not only need to ‘know the law’ but they must also have a suite of additional skillsets that include: understanding technology’s role in legal delivery (a competency requirement in many States); business fluency; cultural awareness; process and project management; client skills; emotional intelligence (‘EQ’ a/k/a ‘people skills’); social media/personal brand building; and an ability to interact with clients. More inter-disciplinary study–especially business, technology, and communications– is important because the boundaries between and among the professions are blurring. For example, the Big Four accounting firms–now diversified professional service networks–do not ‘engage in the practice of law’ in the U.S. due to regulatory reasons. But they certainly delivery legal services–and employ thousands of lawyers (among a much larger group of professionals and paraprofessionals). If one puts their service offerings side-by-side with a large law firm’s, it’s virtually impossible to tell which is which.
It’s time that the legal profession finally jettison archaic, meaningless, and potentially confusing terms like ‘non-lawyer’ and ‘alternative provider.’ These are holdovers of a self-regulated legal guild that is being transformed by consumers that seek solutions to increasingly complex business challenges that raise legal issues, not ‘legal matters.’ Lawyers are increasingly part of integrated professional teams that leverage technology and process to tackle these business challenges. Law is no longer an island, and lawyers are not the sole inhabitants.
Legal culture , the by-product of self-regulation designed to preserve the hegemony of its predominantly white, male membership, is changing. The shift is driven by consumers and new tech and process savvy providers that are filling a marketplace need for more accessible, cost-effective, efficient, transparent, easy-to-procure, agile, integrated, and expert legal delivery. Diversity, technology, and collaboration are hallmarks of a new legal culture. Each is crucial to a profession that is the first responder and ultimate defender of the rule of law that applies to all societal members on an equal basis.