The law firm industry is notoriously known for honoring tradition and merit — and that is certainly also the case with a lawyer’s progression through the internal hierarchy of a firm.
Lawyers usually begin as students or associates in a law firm, and by patiently grinding their way through repetitive work-tasks, they slowly advance towards the promised land of being an equity partner. Much like everything else in the legal industry, however, this well-defined and safe journey is about to be turned upside down.
The repetitive work tasks that have historically comprised the bulk of the traditional work on which young lawyers cut their teeth are increasingly facing pressure from digital tools, legal project outsourcing, or alternative legal service providers (ALSP). What used to be the bread-and-butter of the associate — and their ticket to rising in the law firm ranks — is now being automated or outsourced. That then begs the question: Is it time to re-think the law firm pyramid structure and the role of the associate?
Automating the Mundane Tasks
Students who chose law as their career path are often attracted to it because of the security in the industry. In law, outcomes are determined by precedents, meaning you argue about outcomes based on what has been previously determined in similar situations. That creates a certain stability in the field. The same is true for the seniority progression through a traditional law firm. You often have a clearly defined path of how to advance and chase the next rank by delivering more billable hours at a higher cost. As you progress, the tasks like draft creation, document reviews, writing briefs, or performing simple document due diligence make up the majority of your workload.
What is common for all these tasks is that they are prime targets for automation. In a few years, technology will be an even quicker, more accurate, and more cost-efficient solution.
The disruption of repetitive legal work is merely a taste of what is about to come. It already poses several issues in the foundation of the pyramid – at the associate level of the law firm. But as alternatives become increasingly sophisticated, the phenomena will spread upwards. Law firms will have to decide if they believe the traditional model of associate progression is suitable in the 21st century. If so, they must decide whether the conventional skills obtained at the associate level is to be safeguarded or replaced by an alternative skillset. If not, they must find an alternative way to maintain an internal supply of talent.
Re-Thinking the Associate Skill-Set
I believe it is time to re-think the skills of associates. Where certain associate skills are paramount to becoming a good lawyer, some skills should be introduced earlier as part of a young lawyer’s legal education, and other skills could be thrown into the dustbin of history because technological advancements either already have or soon will completely replace them.
To facilitate this evolutionary transformation, it is incumbent upon law schools and law firms to tack to a course that will breed tech-savvy and innovation-minded lawyers that can fuel the transition the majority of law firms will need to undergo in the coming years.
If a law firm should decide to keep the classic pyramid structure, the utilization of associates in relation to client-generation is for most law firms an untapped resource. Already, some firms have sought to tap this resource. Initiatives like Justice Café Atlanta — where new clients can meet with associate lawyers to get advice on simple legal matters — are still rare, but should be more widespread. Not only is it a great way for law firms to be part of the communities in which they operate, it is also a way to give associates hands-on legal experience, and potentially establish new client relationships.
In reality, law firms should start considering alternative organizational structures to replace the traditional pyramid. A large group of associates have served as a talent pool for the law firm, but if the law firm is able to forge closer collaboration with universities, freelancers, and the communities surrounding them, this could serve as a needed talent pool, ameliorating the need for a large group of associates.
Not only do initiatives like the Justice Café create a more diverse list of work tasks for associates and change the way in which law firms operate in their own environment, they also enable the future partner of your law firm to think innovatively with digitization-based on hands-on experience.
Indeed, by externalizing the hunt for talent, changing the role of the associate, and re-thinking their progression through the ranks of the law firm, the legal industry might be able to quench the fire that is currently spreading from the bottom of the law firm pyramid.
Where lawyers of the 20th century were required to know the ins-and-outs of the law, the lawyers of the 21st century will certainly need to know what happens when technology, innovation, and the law meets. Law firms able to breed partners who understand this will be the winners in the 21st century.