Lawyers and the Changing Legal Industry: Three Traits to Survive and Thrive Over the Long Haul

There is no question but that the legal industry is—and has been—evolving. The pace of that evolution is open for debate, but the drivers of change are quite clear. New entrants into the industry drive a different mindset. A new generation of buyers is more sophisticated than ever and looks to redefine their own standard of value. Like many industries, the application of advanced technologies creates opportunities to redefine service delivery models. As a result, technology continues to penetrate the industry.

At the same time, even against this backdrop, the traditional model of business in Big Law continues to persevere. When juxtaposed against the factors driving change, the result is an industry that is increasingly complicated to navigate. So, it poses a question for lawyers and those who may want to be lawyers in Big Law: What does it take to survive and thrive in this changing environment—not just now but over the long haul?

Necessary Skills versus Personal Attributes

This is not just an existential question. Law schools are struggling with that question as they look at enrollment levels and the nature of their education. Big Law struggles with that question as it looks to hire new lawyers. Part of the reason we struggle with the question is that we tend to frame our answer in the context of skills needed by lawyers. We ask whether lawyers should learn to code. We want to teach them to be project managers. We talk about T-Shaped lawyers or delta-shaped lawyers.

The discussion of skills is important. It has the advantage of being tangible. We can create a class to teach people to code or to read a balance sheet. But it obscures the larger question: what are the attributes a lawyer needs to be successful in this environment? Skills can be learned and honed and are critical. But, they only go so far unless layered onto the necessary personal attributes.

Of course, traditional attributes for lawyers remain important: intelligence and judgment are two that leap readily to mind. Without minimizing the importance of traditional attributes, we should focus on three, interrelated attributes that are increasingly important in today’s changing legal environment: intellectual curiosity, risk tolerance, and resilience.

Intellectual Curiosity

Over the years, I have come to believe that one of the most important—yet rare—traits is intellectual curiosity. It seems odd to list this attribute—as one would think this has always been important. It has, but the profession tends not to reward this trait. In law school we are taught that the answer can be found (or at least the question framed) by looking at books—cases, statutes, hornbooks and the like. We move forward by looking backward. Similarly, the historic immunity of the industry to change drivers has led firms to stay within a narrow range of decisions—informed largely by what other members of Big Law are doing. Experimentation is not the norm.

Learning from the past is important. Yet, we are no longer immune from change. New entrants to the market, for example, play by different rules. To be successful long-term, we need to imagine the future and learn from examples outside the industry. The most successful lawyers in the future are the ones who ask why? Why are we doing something this way? Why isn’t there a better way? In the world of Lean Six Sigma there is an exercise called the 5 Whys—which is exactly what it sounds like. It is an iterative process designed to get to the root of a particular problem. My 3-year-old grandson has mastered the exercise—surely, we can look for the same traits in lawyers.

Risk Tolerance

Closely related to this is a tolerance for risk. Top business people are adept and able to assess and tolerate business risk. They are finely attuned to making risk-reward decisions. Our profession, of course, drives toward minimization or even elimination of risk. Managing through the change in the profession, however, requires a willingness to assess and take risks. It requires a willingness to fail and an ability adapt to that failure. This is different than taking stupid risks or tolerating malpractice. Rather, the ability to assess and tolerate risk is a key attribute of successful business leaders. Lawyers need to be able to do the same.

Resilience

The third trait is that of resilience. As the term implies, resiliency means the ability to bounce back from failure. You have noticed that many lawyers have difficulty accepting criticism. As noted above, we tend to have a desire to minimize risk or avoid failure. Larry Richard, a psychologist, has studied this tendency among lawyers and found the following:

“People who are low on Resilience tend to be defensive, resist taking in feedback and can be hypersensitive to criticism. In the hundreds of cases we have gathered, nearly all of the lawyers we’ve profiled (90%) score in the lower half of this trait, with the average being 30%. The range is quite wide, with quite a number of lawyers scoring in the bottom tenth percentile.

“… These lower scores suggest a self-protective quality. This may explain why many partners’ meetings get sidetracked into defensive exchanges and why a simple request to turn in timesheets is often met with a defensive tirade.”

As our industry continues to evolve, it will require greater numbers of people who are prepared to challenge the norm. Who have the willingness to assess and tolerate risk. Who can accept failure, learn from it and drive improvements as a result. The industry has people like this, but they are fewer in number than we need. We should look for people whose strengths include these traits and be willing to nurture and support them.