Leonardo da Vinci was not only one of the world’s most celebrated painters, he was also a brilliant scientist, a decent architect, a visionary engineer and an excellent mathematician — the quintessential Renaissance man.
While future lawyers may have to settle with less glamorous merits, they must nevertheless adopt da Vinci’s polymathic approach. They must develop and hone a variety of skills, capabilities, and talents to move seamlessly across disciplines and collaborate with other professionals. And they must draw on differentiated bodies of knowledge to solve the problems of the future. Lawyers must become more fluid.
Last year, we introduced the fluid law firm, which is our vision for a proactive law firm strategy crafted in response to the emerging gig economy, the new technological reality
and the new client-centric era in law. We outlined how law firms must reshape themselves in the image of the client, embrace digital transformation and open up to surrounding ecosystems. As we wrote then, “To meet client demands and regain trust, law firms must strategize for externalization, engage in collaborative ecosystems and replace their entrenched walls with flexible membranes that can absorb and extract talent and resources more seamlessly.”
In short, to engage openly with these ecosystems fluid law firms require fluid lawyers.
New markets, new skills
Thinking of lawyers as Renaissance men and women is nothing new. The legal tech pioneer Richard Susskind predicted almost 10 years ago that lawyers should diversify and extend their capabilities to become more multidisciplinary. They should enhance themselves with new technologies, acquire a better understanding of business strategies and prepare themselves to deliver more for less with a new data-driven, digital and client-centric approach. Since then, the debate has been bouncing back and forth: Should lawyers learn to code? Should they learn design thinking? Should they be T-shaped? O-shaped? I-shaped?
The fluid lawyer is a way to condense these debates into a simple concept that explains what skills and traits lawyers need to be successful in the future legal market. Among the most important of these traits, these five are key:
1. Legal expertise
The fluid lawyer must not be a jack of all trades, a master of none. Expert legal knowledge will remain the main asset for lawyers in the future and the core product for fluid law firms. In fact, expert specialist knowledge will become even more critical in the future. Standardized low-complexity legal work will continue to be farmed out to new automation tools and other legal technologies, freeing the lawyer from these repetitive, mundane tasks.
Being able to use this knowledge to find creative and actionable solutions is what separates humans and machines; however, there will always be a need for expert trusted advisors who can articulate solutions and strategies for complex or high-value legal cases. Meanwhile, we expect that legal generalists will be challenged in a gig economy where fluid law firms can comfortably find critical legal expertise both in-house and at outside sources.
2. Tech literacy
Should lawyers learn to code? No. Lawyers do not need to learn how to code, just like software developers do not need to know how to make computers. The best modern legal technology enhances the work of the lawyers and enables them to be conversant with the technology, but they do not have to make it themselves.
However, a fluid lawyer must have a higher degree of tech literacy. They must have basic conceptual understanding of emerging technologies, so they can use them and offer them to their clients. For example, there will be a need for lawyers with expert knowledge on digital technologies, so they can advise legal tech companies and help fluid law firms maintain a premium tech stack. These legal technologists should have a great understanding of the market, so they can test products and educate other lawyers.
3. Business strategy
Law school introduces law students to all the important practice areas to give all future lawyers a
basic understanding of the most important fields. We need to expand the curriculum, so it encompasses a fundamental knowledge of innovation processes, project management and everything else related to running a sustainable business.
Not everyone will work with it, but everyone needs to be equipped to enter a job market where a more holistic approach to professional services is required. Indeed, fluid law firms cannot focus solely on law. Already, we see the Big Four tax and accounting firms gaining ground with one-stop-shopping concepts as they leverage cross-service collaboration to create synergies and offer their clients all-round services at a favorable price.
In the future, people will not only come to lawyers to get an assessment of their risk; they will also want someone who understands what it means to run a business and who can see opportunities in the market. Lawyers who can prescribe proactive, creative solutions not restricted exclusively to the legal side but also benefiting the commercial side of the business will be tremendously valued.
4. People skills
Technologies can increase access to justice, but they can also make the legal system even more faceless and opaque. To counter that alienation, fluid law firms need lawyers who understand their clients and their problems with empathy. Trusted advisors will not only be valued for the expert legal knowledge, but also for the emotional understanding they can show.
Furthermore, emotionally intelligent lawyers with excellent people skills will be equipped to thrive in the work environment of a fluid law firm. Most of the legal industry is currently structured in a hierarchical pyramid formation, and lawyers are often rewarded for the hours they bill. Unfortunately, that creates a great breeding ground and habitat for brilliant minds who produce high-quality work but focus too much on billable hours. However, the legal industry will change this culture in the coming years to create a more innovation-friendly culture that suits millennial- and Gen Z-age lawyers. That requires different personality types — people who are more open, friendlier and more collaborative.
Our modern world is characterized by its accelerating nature. This world is increasingly dynamic, where environments can change at a more rapid pace, which often makes it appear that the present is shrinking. Nothing stays the same for that long a time, and that also goes for the legal world.
This means fluid lawyers must be curious, adaptable, and willing to learn new things so they can react to these changes, avoid dangers and leverage the opportunities they identify or create.
The legal world, in fact, is no longer prone to the same kind of competition — liberalizations and new tech-enabled competitors will create a logic of competition that forces the development of a growth mindset where you need to continually innovate to keep up with the status quo. To differentiate themselves in this competitive market, fluid law firms will need to develop new legal products, and present new business models and new approaches to their work.
And they will need fluid lawyers who can work in that reality.
This article was co-authored by Alexander Irschenberger, who has gone from the Fortune 500 and a tier 1 law firm to become a pioneer within legal tech — first building Archii, then joining the tech revolution at Contractbook. Irschenberger is often featured in industry news and always seeks solutions that push the digital agenda.