What Skills Will Lawyers Need in 20 Years?

Photo by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Editor’s Note: This post is written by a director of a global legal services firm who works with in-house legal teams to adjust process and reduce costs in litigation, investigations and other document-intensive matters. 

By Dan Currell, Director, Client Solutions at Novus Law LLC

What new skills will lawyers need in the coming decades? This is, rightly, a hot question of late, and for good reason. Law firms are questioning the preparedness of new hires; law schools are revamping stale curricula; clients are dismissing the usefulness of young lawyers. The profession is struggling to re-orient to an unknown future.

But, it’s not the right question. It presumes we all share a common path and a common objective — that there is some set of new skills that all lawyers will need. Is that true? What if only some lawyers need to learn new and different skills? Who are those lawyers? What do they need to learn?

The evolution of an industry is usually marked by increased specialization. The legal profession has traditionally been specialized by practice area. A lawyer commits to a practice area, and the way to become successful is to become an expert in that area, or if not expert, well versed in drafting, discovery, due diligence and maybe a dozen other things that support the work of a client counselor and rainmaker within that unique practice area. As a profession, we are topic specialists, not task specialists.

That’s changing.

More lawyers are starting to specialize in specific “tasks,” with the rise of legal operations advancing the shift.

This means that we will have fewer unified skill sets for legal professionals to develop. And, legal professionals won’t always be lawyers — or at least, they won’t always be practicing law. More of the work to deliver legal services will take place in the design phase. Professionals in operations, technology, process management and other fields will make the work of practicing lawyers dramatically more scalable and efficient.

So, what will lawyer skills look like in 20 years? The best way to assess that is to look at the green shoots we see starting to grow, and evaluate them against the tall trees that may fall — or those that may stand for another century.

Some old timber is still standing strong. Take appellate lawyers. The law will change; facts will change; technology will change. But, the work won’t really change. An intellectually gifted appellate lawyer will likely be as valuable to her client in 2035 as she is now — even if she’s technology-challenged. That’s not where the key value is created. We could make a list of similar roles where the skill set is likely to stay put. But the foundations in other areas are shifting, and that’s where the conversation gets interesting.

One big area is legal operations management. Every day at Novus Law, legal professionals are regularly doing some or all of the following things:

• Designing and building online collaboration portals to manage projects and deliver
work product to clients.

• Creating and administering skills assessments to build the matter-specific knowledge
attorneys use to prepare work product.

• Running an integrated system of quantitative analytics, each with its own detailed
checklist, to regularly measure and manage quality.

• Measuring, analyzing improving and controlling work processes to reduce variation,
eliminate error-prone steps and increase efficiencies.

• Using the science of statistics to permit clients and their law firms to audit and verify
the accuracy and quality of our work product.

• Using the science of collective intelligence, sometimes known as the wisdom of
crowds, to ensure that everyone who works on a matter, clients, their law firms and
our team, all participate in creating work product for a piece of litigation or the fact
base for a transaction.

This kind of legal operations work is growing — through the advent of legal operations specialists inside large companies, the emergence of process mapping and operations management by legal services providers, and the beginnings of process consciousness in a few influential law firms.

Legal operations can make a great contribution to the quality of legal practice. When faced with a big problem, lawyers start by working the file, reading the documents, doing the legal research. This is a mistake.

We now see the emergence of legal organizations that approach big problems the way an architect might: Step back. Assess the problem. Think about its contours. Design a systematic way of surmounting the problem and create a detailed action plan. Only then do they work on the problem according to a set plan, with checkpoints, quality oversight mechanisms, and goals firmly established from the start.

To return to my earlier point: Will all lawyers need to do this? No. Will the legal profession need thousands of people who can do this? Yes.

This doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about the future of legal skills, but it gets us to the right question: What does the total future landscape of legal skills look like, and who is going to need what? That’s a question that requires a map for an answer, not a simple checklist.

A fuller version of this post previously appeared in the Association of Corporate Counsel Legal Ops Observer newsletter.