The New World of Legal Work: The Changing Rules of the 21st Century

2014-05-30 12:24:02

“ The future of work has arrived! There’s only one problem: it look quite the way most of uspredicted”.

UnknownThat’s the insightful opening comment in legal consultant Jordan Furlong’srecent report on the future of legal work. Furlong identifies four factors that are influencing the fundamentals of the 21st century workforce. The overriding theme that drives all workforce environments, including lawyers is “agility”. Gone are the days of lawyers showing up for work everyday and sitting intheir offices. 

The successful lawyer of today and tomorrow has grasped the importance of “e-work” and “e-mobility”. The lap top computer, I-Phone, I-Pad, Skyping, etc. have become the platforms for generating information services such as law. An increasing amount of legal work is contract driven and as law firms continue to essentially freeze permanent hiring of new associates and in some instances actually contract in declining to replace retiring partners and exiting associates. And this new approach to lawyer work is proving to be effective. Firms at the forefront of this new approach are reporting increased profitability.

Lawyers embarking on a career will need to become entrepreneurial. On the one hand this means no guarantee of employment. On the other hand this will enable entry-level lawyers who find a niche or specialty to become profitable practitioners in a relatively short period of time. No longer will they have to chomp at the bit putting in that 5-7 year indentured associate period with fingers crossed waiting for the that coveted invitation to partnership.

The new breed of lawyer will in many instances become a hybrid practitioner. They will leverage the analytical skills acquired in legal education to become industry specific analysts, multi-disciplinary consultants, particularly if they have a “Combined LLB/JD and LLM graduate specialist qualification.

That being said the majority of law firms and far too many lawyers continue to live and work in the fog: 

“Most law firms are working not much differently in 2013 than they did in 1953, despite 60 years of advancements in every other industry in the areas of technology, division of labour, and business process. This is why, facing the first serious revenue shortfalls they’ve seen for many years, most law firms lack the systems or the imagination to do more than cut reflexively and fire ruthlessly to reduce payroll and expenses. Yet profits continue to drop, as clients find cheaper alternatives to lawyers, drive down rates that reduce margins, or go without lawyers’ help altogether. “

Multi-disciplinary consultants who are competing for professional services work with law firms are forcing law firms to let go of the billable hour. The MBA consultants who comprise the “creative class” are presenting clients with value propositions; the more successful are in adding value to the matter the higher the compensation- the less successful the lower the compensation. Law firms are being forced to play catch up or risk having increasing amounts of “non legal” transaction and negotiation work hived off and referred to consultants.

The Three Steps to succeeding as a lawyer in the 21st century professional services environment according to Furlong:

1. Planning;

Figure out what your market value proposition should be, based upon the skills and experiences you’ve already accumulated during your ‘legal job’ years and upon your inherent talents and interests. Choose a ‘base of operations,’ whether that is
a region, a market, or a practice area. Solidify the networks you’ve developed within that base, focusing them towards your market proposition. If there are business skills or know-how you feel you lack, including sales, client service and time management, acquire them now.

2. Launching:

Among your first priorities will be developing your expertise, and a reputation to match, within your chosen community. Aim to become head-turningly great at something highly useful at your earliest opportunity. Take on new projects; seek referrals; self-publish your know-how through blogs and social media. No matter what your lifestyle was like when you were a law firm associate, switch into ‘startup involved in whatever legal community you have chosen

3. Growing:

Figure out your maximum-comfort zone, whether it’s a legal niche, a mode of work, a client or regional base, and so forth. Do what most law firms fail to do and differentiate yourself: what can clients get uncommonly or even uniquely from you upon engagement? Remember to tap the latent legal market: the blue oceans, the overlooked markets. Risk management, legal health plans, and preventive law will be among the emerging practice types to exploit. 

Source: The New World of Legal Work The Changing Rules of the 2st Century by Jordan Furlong (http://law21.ca).