How can today’s legal service providers and in-house legal teams attract the best people?
Janet Taylor-Hall, CEO, Cognia
Today’s best and brightest arrive in the profession with different ideas about what constitutes a successful climb up the ladder. In the past, law firms and large corporate legal departments would scoop up NQs and set them on the path to partner or GC: work intensely, put in long hours, sacrifice personal time, and accept stress and exhaustion as the price of success.
The truth is that the partner path was always unrealistic for most. It’s a bit like a sales funnel. Fill it at the top with as many top prospects as possible, then push them hard till a small number of determined — and let’s face it, lucky — people squeeze through.
Between acquisition and ascension, however, a lot of retention gets sacrificed. How many brilliant lawyers hit mid-career and find themselves looking back on years of time and effort spent chasing a goal that was never really within reach? The answer is: too many.
Today’s graduates want to avoid that kind of disillusionment and build careers that offer a modern view of achievement; where the working environment is geared toward solving problems, gaining new experiences, and using the latest tools and approaches — not seeing who can be last to leave the office at day’s end.
But how many legal operations are ready to meet those expectations?
Practices from a bygone age
The truth is that the legal profession is still locked in the mindset of the old pre-digital economy. It’s detached from the talent marketplace and expects its new joiners to pursue traditional career paths that aren’t relevant for the vast majority.
A 2020 report from the looked at the skills required to progress careers in the digital age. It’s full of good news for lawyers, particularly the finding that traditional legal aptitudes like critical thinking and problem solving are vital to success in the digital marketplace.
It also lists ‘soft’ skills like emotional intelligence, collaboration, and creativity as equally important.
These sorts of contemporary competencies, blended with project management, data analytics, design thinking, and talent management—are precisely the kinds of skills today’s NQs want to apply in real life. They’re also increasingly the kinds of abilities legal clients want to buy.
Yet, they aren’t fully embraced by the profession. That’s a missed opportunity as these skills are becoming essential for the legal positions being filled today and the new roles still being created.
Newly qualified lawyers and other kinds of legal professionals have more career paths, lifestyle choices, and geographic options than ever before. Unfortunately, only a few legal teams are ready to embrace them.
Getting away from us and them
Law firms and corporate legal departments still function mainly as they did ten years ago, with a perceived hierarchy between lawyers and “non-lawyers”.
That speaks to a cultural problem, with lawyers clinging to a set of professional myths that clients have less and less time for. Perhaps the hardest of these to dislodge is the idea that only lawyers are qualified to deliver legal services.
In a different setting, the steady growth of legal operations as a cornerstone of legal delivery would be persuasive evidence that things have changed. The arrival of legal ops is widely accepted and even welcomed, but it’s rarely afforded the status full-time permanent roles enjoy.
And that won’t change until legal culture recognises how rapidly technology, collaboration, diversity, gender pay equity, lifestyle choice, and evolving delivery models are changing both the workplace, and demand for legal services.
What clients really want
I’ve been in the legal profession for more than two decades, both as a business professional in a leading private practice firm and a service provider. That gives me a bit of perspective, and what’s clear to me is the gap that’s opened up between client expectations and the legal profession’s ability to satisfy them.
It’s happening because legal leaders are either resisting or failing to grasp how technological and societal changes are driving the digital transformation of global businesses. Corporate clients now need a more responsive, flexible, and impactful kind of legal service. They want their legal providers to protect the enterprise, but they’re also asking for more collaboration at the business unit level to uncover more value. Law schools are still in the early stages of adapting that more holistic requirement into legal curricula and lawyers already in practice won’t have learned the necessary skills in traditional legal settings.
That’s why attracting tomorrow’s talent now is so vital. Clients increasingly want the same abilities that NQs want to obtain, mixing expertise in the law with data science and other aspects of the modern economy, placing new demands on the legal function.
They want to be data-driven, client-centric, global, proactive, sustainable, and collaborative. They want to provide clients with solutions to business challenges, not legal tomes.
That approach to legal practice emanates from an understanding of the core principles of digital transformation. Yet Gartner reports that of in-house legal teams understand it well enough to provide the support and legal insight digital transformation requires.
Too many legal professionals still aren’t ready to provide the holistic legal services corporate clients demand. To support clients in the digital age, legal leaders have to build teams that are agile, collaborative, data-driven and demonstrate a high degree of comfort operating at the intersection of law, business, and technology.
Farewell to past practices
Law respects precedent and naturally analyses what came before to understand what might be coming in the future. But that past-as-precedent world is rapidly disappearing.
In his book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson wrote that we’ve entered a time when ‘what’s gone before stops being a reliable guide to what might happen next.’
To attract talent and keep clients, legal needs a shakeup. Become more inclusive, agile, equitable, tech-savvy, diverse, client-centric, and data-driven. And elevate sustainability into the decision-making processes. Not as an afterthought or box ticking exercise, but as central tenet of the legal service provider or in-house team’s values – or start losing work to providers who embody these values i.e. walk the talk.