What It Means to Be a 21st-Century Lawyer

Much has been written about disruption in the legal services space of late. The working thesis is that for hundreds of years lawyers have been able to apply the same business model to define their relationships with both clients and society at large. One view of the legal profession has always been that lawyers operate like both scholars and advocates. With written and spoken words as their tools, lawyers shape both case law and statutory law. By creating those laws, they help define "appropriate" forms of social conduct and enable the creation of business structures that define our commercial conduct. While people outside of the legal profession could advocate for causes and help shape the creation of laws that reflect the societal thinking of the time, lawyers are mostly left to create that content.

Despite their integral role in shaping both social and commercial behavior, lawyers have lagged in adopting the evolutionary tools used by their clients. Unlike the manufacturers of consumer goods, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, they have not invested in research and development to advance the way they deliver services. And while lawyers have adopted technology over time, they have often been done so reluctantly. But now, change is occurring—and at a rapid pace.

A Change in Times

The Great Recession caused businesses to rethink every aspect of how they operate. Many businesses responded to the crises by reducing head count, and for many, the headcount reductions impacted their legal departments for the first time, leaving those remaining with more responsibility. Business also responded to the crises by redefining relationships with suppliers. They reduced the number of vendors, renegotiated pricing and refined their supply chain and procurement processes. Legal service providers were not immune from these changes. Businesses began to refer to law firms as vendors. Bidding on matters became increasing more common, and law firms began to learn what it meant to go through the RFP process on a routine basis.

Once legal services providers became subject to "vendorization," they were forced to rethink how legal services were delivered. As a result, lawyers had to begin to rethink what it means to be a lawyer.

The Modern Lawyer

There is always going to be a role for lawyers that fit the historical view of scholars and advocates. The vast majority of lawyers, however, fit into a new paradigm. They are becoming the Renaissance men of the 21st century. Their skill sets will encompass a significant grasp of technology, resourcing and process management in addition to the traditional skills taught in law schools and passed on through the ages. Lawyers will need to proactively embrace advanced technology. IBM Watson and other evolving artificial intelligence (AI) tools will drive changes in how legal issues are analyzed and how decisions and strategy are shaped. While these tools will not supplant the role of traditional lawyers, they will add value to the services provided by those lawyers.

The practice of law will have elements that more closely resemble the disciplines, processes and tools used in manufacturing. We are seeing it right now: Basic legal documents can be generated using automation tools. Workflow and process management tools can govern what content must go into certain types of documents, manage the approval process for non-standard provisions and track the lifecycle of a given class of contracts.

A New Approach to Legal Services

The emergence of the modern lawyer allows for alternative approaches to providing legal services. Clients now have the opportunity to "right-source" who performs certain types of work, forcing traditional legal services providers to re-examine who sit in the clients’ network of legal services providers. Clients will be able to virtually expand the size of their legal departments without adding head count and without spending more money on traditional providers, thanks to the presence of third-party legal services providers. These third-party providers will allow law departments to better use their internal talent for their most sensitive work and to avoid wasting that talent on more routine work that does not require the same complex skill sets. These "right-sourced" business arrangements can—and often do—result in work product that is more consistent and less expensive than the same work product delivered by traditional providers. The closed loop argument that using alternative legal services providers results in lesser quality work product is not true anymore. Alternative legal services providers are here to stay and that means traditional providers will need to develop skill sets to manage them, integrate them into their own workflow and recognize when bringing an alternative provider to a client relationship is the right thing to do.

In sum, the maturing census of 21st-century lawyers will be multidimensional with knowledge and skill sets that cut across a broader set of disciplines than those that have historically defined the legal profession. And these new, modern lawyers present an opportunity to provide alternative solutions to providing legal services.

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Mark Yacano is a recognized innovator in the delivery of legal services and a trusted adviser to corporate law departments working with corporate counsel on both business and legal strategy. As the Global Practice Leader, Managed Legal Solutions at Major, Lindsey & Africa, Mark and his colleagues in the Solutions Practice Group work with clients to develop outsourced talent solutions that allow them to reduce their legal fees while improving the quality of work performed on their behalf. He can be reached at (202) 292-2887 and myacano@mlaglobal.com.

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