The Skills Every Future Lawyer Needs

By Erin Coe | February 10, 2020, 8:04 PM EST

Some law schools are trying to foster strengths that will help lawyers of the future excel. Here, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law holds an event where law and computer science students from its innovation lab do live demonstrations of their projects. (Northwestern University)

The lawyers of the future will unquestionably be formed by technology, but they aren't going to be robots. In some ways, they will have to learn to be even more "human" than today's attorneys.

Experts say soft skills like the ability to adapt to new business circumstances, forge personal connections and work in teams with a mix of professionals will be essential to a successful practice.

"Today's lawyers will need a growth mindset for the rest of their careers to continue learning in a rapidly changing world," said Daniel W. Linna Jr., the director of law and technology initiatives and senior lecturer at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and McCormick School of Engineering.

Some legal industry experts think that artificial intelligence is not going to simply streamline the work that lawyers have traditionally handled, but that it will have a much more disruptive effect, allowing businesses, government agencies and consumers to obtain legal counsel without hiring attorneys.

In 2040, huge amounts of legal work will be done by machines and systems both inside and outside of the legal service providers themselves, leaving less and less for traditional lawyers to do, said Richard Susskind, author of the book, "Online Courts and the Future of Justice."

"People don't want lawyers; they want outcomes and solutions that lawyers bring," he said.

To provide those outcomes and solutions, many lawyers of the future will be responsible for building the systems that replace the old ways of working.

They will become legal knowledge engineers, legal risk managers, legal systems analysts, legal design thinkers and legal technologists, and they will be the ones solving clients' problems, not through one-on-one advice, but through technology-delivered solutions, according to Susskind.

The challenge for existing lawyers is whether they are prepared over the next 20 years to retrain themselves for these new roles.

"If we don't do it, other professions will," Susskind said. "There are 2,000 legal tech startups, most of whom are looking to do to law what Amazon did to bookselling."

While many see a less extreme version of the future where human lawyers still exist — and thrive — most of these attorneys will be steeped in technology that they are able to deploy and integrate into their practice.

Advancements in artificial intelligence and data analytics also could shift some of the current emphasis on lawyers' skills from handling cases efficiently to preventing those cases from arising in the first place.

"If lawyers could utilize artificial intelligence to look at patterns and trends to prevent the next case from happening or to make changes in a business to minimize risks, that's what is missing today and that will be the next logical step," said Nicole Nehama Auerbach, co-founder of ElevateNext Law.

This kind of environment is going to make people skills all the more necessary. Lawyers are going to have to extend their ability to empathize — to understand the motivations and needs of clients, colleagues and opposing counsel — in a world where work takes place almost exclusively over virtual platforms.

Whether they are trying to draw out clients who may be withholding information that could be helpful in litigation or make inroads with opposing counsel to resolve a suit, lawyers will have to rely on their emotional intelligence in the absence of face time, according to Heidi Brown, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School.

"Those types of skills are going to be so important in order to solve problems, especially in the future when many of us are going to be hiding behind our computers," she said.

Attorneys are used to working in silos and sticking to their practice area, industry specialization or office geography. But in the future, they are going to be required to build bridges across traditional divides  as law firms evolve and nonlawyers move into the legal market. 

Lawyers won't have to be all things to their clients, but they will need a deep appreciation for how the business world works and how problems can be approached in ways beyond the legal context.

"Clients in every corner of the globe will need to turn to a business solutions provider who can address their legal, financial, consulting, advisory, forensic, accounting and regulatory needs — all under one roof," said Elliott Portnoy, global chief executive officer at Dentons.

Most of the lawyers of 2040 won't be working at firms, but will more likely be part of a business with many services, only one of which revolves around the law.

For this generation of lawyers, project management won't just be a secondary or added skill. It will be fundamental to good lawyering, as will be the ability to collaborate on teams where lawyers are part of a mix of professionals, including data scientists, technologists, pricing specialists, legal operators and those with business administration degrees.

"There's the expression: 'There are no legal questions, only business questions that involve legal issues,'" said Scott Forman, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson PC. "That's the reality of how things are going to be going forward."

As a result, junior lawyers today can't just look at how senior partners climbed the ranks at their firm and expect to follow in their footsteps.

"Junior lawyers are having different experiences to what senior lawyers had, and partners may not be able to give junior attorneys all of the advice or mentorship they need," said Jennifer Leonard, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School's chief innovation officer and executive director of the future of the profession initiative. "Lawyers need to be nimble and able to adapt."

Some law firms are already reaching outside the legal industry for business growth. Reed Smith LLP in November received approval from a U.K. legal regulator to raise outside investments in the business and bring in nonlawyer partners, making it the first international firm to convert to an "alternative business structure."

And oversight officials in states including California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are taking steps toward opening the legal industry to nonlegal tech companies and others. Currently, only the District of Columbia lets nonlawyers have an ownership interest in law firms.

Collaboration across practice areas and markets will be even more important in the future, especially with the advance of the globalized economy, according to Brian Duffy, chief executive officer at Greenberg Traurig LLP.

"Attorneys will more often need to collaborate not only with same-firm colleagues, but also with technology providers and alternative service providers to deliver to clients the best service possible in a seamless and timely manner," he said. "And those legal solutions will need to take into account varying legal challenges across multiple countries."

Experts can't anticipate all of the skill sets or types of training that lawyers will need to succeed 20 years down the line, but it's clear that settling into the mindset of "We've always done it this way" isn't a viable option. Attorneys must think creatively and be open to change.

"So much of this is about being curious and exploring and about lawyers asking themselves what problems clients have and what skills lawyers have to have to deliver superior service," Northwestern's Linna said.

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson, Martin Bricketto and John Campbell.

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