Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

The role of lawyers: from artisan to digital native

Out-Law Analysis | 09 Dec 2021 | 4:17 pm | 5 min. read

The nature of a lawyer’s job has changed dramatically in the past decade or so. Gone are the days where drafting, arguing in court and negotiating were the critical skills needed to succeed in the profession.

Lawyers now, both in-house and in private practice, are required to handle a wider set of issues. As a result, legal skills need adapting and new skills must be learned.

Many in-house legal teams have led the charge as they move from being risk spotters and general advisers to becoming strategic business partners and enablers within an organisation. In the in-house world, lawyers are even more closely aligned to their businesses now than before.

Private practice firms have followed suit, setting up bespoke teams to give their lawyers and clients the tools required for this new world – particularly in the area of legal technology and legal process management.

To achieve this change, in-house lawyers can no longer rely on legal expertise alone. They need to optimise their processes, and adopt legal project management tools and process engineering to deliver a high-quality, stable output.

These skills require an in-house lawyer to be comfortable in a digital world and appreciate the potential of technology. Data analytics skills, managing documents and metadata, are also increasingly important.

Adam Marsland

Head of Lean Six Sigma, Pinsent Masons. 

Historically fee-earners could charge the client for inefficiency through time on the clock. The market shift now shows a movement from craft production, or lawyers applying their legal knowledge, to mass service centres  

Many in-house teams are now talking about the need for their people to be ‘T-shaped’. They need deep knowledge in a domain of expertise, but with the bar of the T made up of those skills including project management, use of technology, data analytics, communications and presenting etc.

A complementary model is the ‘O-shaped’ lawyer proposed by Network Rail general counsel for regions Dan Kayne, which looks at legal skills in the round and calls on lawyers to be optimistic, take ownership of outcomes, be open-minded, opportunistic, and original.

Related to this recognition that lawyers need more than legal expertise is a move towards embracing legal operations – either by introducing dedicated legal operations specialists within a team, or, more often, by encouraging in-house lawyers to develop legal operations skills.

Supporting this shift is the trend for private practice firms to deliver a broader response to client requirements, including the delivery of managed legal service solutions.

Changing service delivery

Managed legal services is where organisations outsource some or all of their legal function or legal processes to an external provider which blends people, process and technology together to deliver a quick, efficient and cost-effective solution.

These solutions are particularly helpful for businesses with day-to-day legal challenges sucking up a lot of in-house time and resource – for example large volumes of contracts. Managed legal services providers can automate the systems and processes required for these tasks.

Flexible lawyering solutions, such as Pinsent Masons Vario, for times when additional in-house resource is needed are also increasingly popular, often backed up by technological platforms to track capacity and utilisation rates.

As a result of these offerings, the relationship between law firm and in-house lawyer is also changing. Businesses no longer turn to law firms solely for legal advice, but instead want a strategic partner who can help them solve a problem or enact organisational change.

Technology and processes

The shift away from lawyers being seen solely as a cost transfers the application of law from pure knowledge management to something slightly different. These repeated demands are managed through standardised process efficiency and the agility to adapt those processes in the face of a rapidly changing legal landscape.

One popular approach is ‘Lean Six Sigma’, which actually combines two approaches, Lean and Six Sigma. Lean aims to eliminate activities that don't add value to a process, whereas Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology to remove variation of defects and understand patterns of statistical significance.

Law is one of the last industries to adopt these principles, and it shows striking similarities with other industries in terms of moving from an artisanal approach to technology-driven processes.

For example. the popularisation of Lean took place in the automotive industry where cars used to be made by artists, not factories. For the privilege, customers would pay a premium and, if their car broke down, they would have to find the original person that made their vehicle.

Henry Ford changed that, with the introduction of integrated supply chains, mass production and assembly lines. After the second world war, Japanese automotive leaders were invited to learn from their American counterparts, but without the necessary infrastructure created a smarter method of producing widgets. The most prominent was, and is, known as the Toyota Production System, or Lean.

McGlinchey Mike

Mike McGlinchey

Head of Client Consulting

While lawyers who have learned technology and coding skills have opened the door to a new, fascinating career path, this is not essential in the new world – but understanding the capabilities of technology solutions is.

The legal industry is now following the same path. Historically fee-earners could charge the client for inefficiency through time on the clock. The market shift now shows a movement from craft production, or lawyers applying their legal knowledge, to mass service centres. However, to truly achieve process excellence we need to see a further evolution to a Lean environment.

Legal technology can help achieve this. It can be categorised in three ways: managing the legal function; managing the work; and performing the work.

The third area is the one arguably attracting the most interest and there are now many products available helping with day-to-day tasks such as case management, contract review, or e-discovery.

There are also more generic tools supporting the management of a legal team: for example intake, triage or legal front door tools can be effective both at managing a team and workloads, and providing data on demand and performance.

Many legal technology solutions were started by lawyers identifying a need for a particular tool. While lawyers who have learned technology and coding skills have opened the door to a new, fascinating career path, this is not essential in the new world – but understanding the capabilities of technology solutions is.

Steps for in-house teams to take

To take advantage of the systems and processes now offered by private practice firms and legal technology providers, in-house teams should look at how they work and what they could change.

In-housers should analyse their processes with the aim of systematically understanding how each step adds value. It may be helpful if this task is completed by those individuals and teams that perform the activity. By empowering those individuals to interrogate their own areas of interest, it brings necessary stakeholders closer together to answer collective problems.

There should be a real focus on which tasks require a deep knowledge of the business, and which can be outsourced.

Thinking ahead is also critical. In-house teams should identify the next big regulatory change that will have a compliance impact on the business, as well as the next big project coming down the line or things that will require systemic change in the business. Horizon-planning enables the team to get any required support in place.

Now is also the time to develop a technology road map for the in-house legal team, and collaborate closely with the business’s IT specialists.

Developing and leveraging individual digital and data skills will also pay dividends as the shift towards increased use of process management and operational tools accelerates. The opportunities for lawyers in all sectors to help drive change within their organisations, increasing efficiencies and expanding knowledge will only continue.