Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Click here for an audio recording of Kristy Foreman reading this blog post: https://soundcloud.com/user-381880794/how-to-prepare-to-be-a-lawyer-of-tomorrow
In 2008, law professor Richard Susskind’s controversial book, “The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services”, sparked a flame of panic about the demise of our profession. The excerpt below is a concise summary of his thesis:
“I do predict great changes in the legal market that may cause discomfort in the reactionary camp:
a movement towards the commoditization of legal services;
a shift toward ‘decomposing’ legal work into its constituent tasks and sourcing each in the most efficient way;
a related increase in the outsourcing, off-shoring and, as I say, the ‘multi-sourcing’ of legal work;
the emergence of new forms of legal businesses underpinned by novel business models and innovative external funding;
a rapid increase in the impact of various disruptive information technologies
It follows from what I say that the market for the traditional legal practitioner will diminish, as will the need for the traditionally trained law graduate.”
Fast-forward 13 years and one pandemic later, and his predictions about outsourcing for efficiency, emerging technologies and new forms of legal businesses are becoming reality (see Part 1 of this blog post: https://www.forereachconsulting.com/post/what-s-next-a-look-at-post-pandemic-legal-practice-innovation-part-1)
If he got it right, what does that mean for students who worked so hard to get into law school? What does it mean for the law students who struggled through online school for the past year so they can graduate? And what about the newly-called lawyers who have just realized how much they have to learn about the basics of managing a practice?
Professor Susskind issued this warning to them:
“I don’t think they really appreciate how significant a shift there will be...I want people to be very clear this is a different era we’re moving into, and not complacently think ‘if I float through my law degree I’m automatically employable.’”
I think it’s safe to say that most of us did not go to law school to become IT professionals. In fact, for many of us, the concept of constantly evolving technology is more than a little intimidating. And this anxiety doesn’t only apply to “boomers” – just because you were born in the late 90’s doesn’t mean that you have an innate affinity for new tech. Most of us develop comfort with basic technology so that we can perform at school and at work, socialize and play video games, but we don’t spend our down time reading Wired magazine or coding. The suggestion that lawyers who do not embrace legal technology are doomed is too scary for most to consider, so they ignore it. However, it would make more sense to dismiss Susskind's warnings if his earlier predictions had not been quite so accurate. He had this to say about the naysayers:
“Some skeptics will respond by saying that I may be wrong about the future. To them I often say that if there is a reasonable possibility of my predictions coming to pass, then the implications for the profession are so profound that lawyers should surely be preparing in some way.”
But, realistically, what can law students and lawyers do to prepare for the future of legal practice as he envisions it? I don't think he's saying that we should all go back to school to get a degree in computer science or become certified in project management. But you can take steps now to be ready to evolve with the profession. Here are 5 things that law students and lawyers can do today to prepare to be lawyers of tomorrow:
1) BE AWARE
Now is the time to become familiar with the emerging trends in the legal industry. Accept that the world is going to need different kinds of lawyers in the future and be aware that you can be one of those lawyers if you are prepared. The first step in raising your awareness is to be curious. Rather than approaching these trends with fear and resistance, open your mind and ask the questions that will start you on the path to learning how to be a lawyer of tomorrow. Ask yourself: what technology exists that could help me better serve my clients? What processes would enable me to better manage my files? How could I use A.I. to predict and obtain better results? What webinars or associations could I join to learn more and stay on top of new developments? How can I leverage legal innovation to create space for more balance in my life? Who is in my network that I could learn from? Who should I seek out and add to my network?
2) BE PROACTIVE
While it’s necessary to succeed at what’s immediately in front of you, it’s also important to invest the time now to look ahead to what’s coming. When you drive a car, your primary focus is on maintaining your distance from the car in front of you, but you are also aware of the road beyond that car and make decisions based on that awareness. With competing demands on our time, it’s human nature to focus on the proximate risk (failing your Evidence exam) rather than the distal risk (becoming professionally irrelevant). But try to be proactive and avoid procrastination in this regard. It’s easy to tell yourself “once I graduate from law school I’ll learn about legal project management” or “after this trial I’ll have some time to look into alternative legal service providers”. If you put your head down and only focus on the work on your desk, you are at risk of being left behind. Try to make the time now to seek out opportunities to learn and be exposed to these novel concepts. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Read books and articles on legal project management: If you Google “legal project management”, you will see that there are a plethora of books on the subject. Author and consultant Steven Levy is the former Senior Director of Legal Technology at Microsoft and is one of the pioneers of legal project management. His 2009 book “Legal Project Management: Control Costs, Meet Schedules, Manage Risks and Maintain Sanity” is an easy-to-read introduction to these concepts. He has also written a multitude of articles on the subject on his blog: http://www.slaw.ca/author/levy/
Attend free webinars: Many different organizations offer webinars or town hall forums on topics pertaining to legal practice innovation. The Canadian Legal Innovation Forum offers free webinars and you can sign up to be notified of upcoming events: https://www.canlif.net/webinars
Volunteer: Seek out opportunities to be a participant in new initiatives. Often when new technology or processes are being rolled out, volunteers are needed to serve as members of focus groups or as test subjects. If your employer is planning to roll out a new platform, offer to be in a test group and provide feedback on the user experience. If a professor at your law school is conducting research on legal innovation, volunteer to provide your assistance. Your local pro bono organization may offer volunteer opportunities to provide alternative legal services to people in your community.
3) BE VOCAL
If you have done your due diligence and still feel like you don’t have sufficient access to the education and experience you need to adequately prepare you for the future, speak up. Talk to your law school's student society executive about this gap. Reach out to academic decision-makers to request courses or modules that will teach students to think like a lawyer of tomorrow, not just a lawyer of today and yesterday. The law school curriculum in most schools is relatively unchanged from the days when most partners were students. In the Forbes Magazine article “The Future of Lawyers: Legal Tech, A.I., Big Data And Online Courts” (January 17, 2020), Professor Susskind said:
“One of our biggest struggles in the future of the law profession is law schools because they’re still generating 20th-century lawyers when what we need is 21st-century lawyers to meet the demand of companies and individuals who want a lower-cost legal option that is conveniently available and delivered electronically.”
Thompson Rivers University was the first law school in Canada to train students in new fields like legal knowledge engineering and legal expert system design. Students work with legal tech firm Neota Logic to design law-related apps, like the one they created to help self-represented litigants. Students at other law schools have the power to speak up and request similar opportunities to learn.
If you’re no longer in law school, talk to your law society, the CBA, your local bar association and your employer about initiating opportunities to learn and gain exposure to legal tech and new ways of practicing so that you can be prepared for the future.
4) BE COLLABORATIVE
Rather than fearing the invasion of alternative legal service providers, artificial intelligence, legal tech and legal project management, be prepared to take a collaborative approach. It is a natural instinct to view these significant changes as a threat to your position in the legal industry. However, by shifting your mindset to view these changes as an opportunity rather than as a competition, you are positioning yourself to be a lawyer of tomorrow. As Professor Susskind says, “The challenge for a young lawyer looking ahead to the 2020s is, ‘do you want to compete with machines or build the machines?'”
To be truly collaborative in this situation, you need to accept that there will be non-lawyers who can perform law-related tasks better than you. Accept that they may have knowledge that you don’t have because you lack training and experience in these specialized areas. But also understand that you possess assets that they may not have: a legal education; critical thinking, issue-spotting and legal problem-solving skills; emotional intelligence, counselling and advising skills; the ability to build long-term, trusting relationships with your clients. By collaborating with these non-traditional legal service providers, the client relationships you have built may not only be preserved, but could actually be strengthened.
5) BE OPTIMISTIC
Professor Susskind's message is lacking in positivity, but I believe that fear isn't the only motivation to change our behaviour. Changes beyond our control are always scary, but after a period of anxiety, resistance, uncertainty and discomfort, we often come to understand that the changes were for the better. Lawyers have had a monopoly on legal services for centuries. This has always been a good thing for lawyers, but is it best for people with legal problems now and in the future?
Sometimes it can be easier to accept these types of changes if you take a step back and consider the greater good beyond how it directly impacts you. After all, if these changes mean improved access to justice, more efficient and cost-effective legal service delivery for clients, exposure to more high-level work earlier in a lawyer’s career, a departure from the billable hour model, increased retention of women and BIPOC lawyers, and more opportunity to do more meaningful work, wouldn’t these changes be for the better?