Being more than just a lawyer
25 Nov 2020
As if advising on legal matters was not enough, companies are now expecting more out of their legal teams.
You see, the lawyer of the future will not only need to provide legal advice but will also need to be a business adviser who is at ease with technology, working seamlessly alongside in-house legal teams focused more on the “business end” of the business.
This “we need more” shift, may have been hastened by the global recession we find ourselves in following the global lockdown, but clients are certainly looking to get more “bang for their buck”. A Jack or Jill of all trades is seemingly the appropriate new title for “lawyer”.
Being a really effective legal professional nowadays means being the lawyer who not only provides excellent legal advice, but is also someone who has an appropriate influence on the overall activities of the business—someone whose advice is sought out and heeded. Especially by the top honchos at the large corporates. For years the general consensus around the legal department or external counsel (whilst crucial to all business) is that it hinders progress, instead of enabling it. And that will not fly in 2020 (and hereafter).
In a time characterised by constant change, traditional firms have started to recognise the need for increased efficiency – not only to keep up with shifting client demands, but also to retain a competitive edge amidst a tidal wave of new legal tech and the need to be technologically savvy, alongside that of the fourth industrial revolution and technological insurgency of their progressive clients. While specialist knowledge will always be the backbone of any legal practice, most firms today will need to rely on a number of different aspects to keep their legal ship afloat.
Where do we start?
Legal professionals are trained and valued for their technical skills and expertise. But to truly distinguish themselves, legal professionals must develop other attributes, such as greater knowledge of the businesses they serve. The more attorneys know or learn about an industry, the better they perform as legal and business advisors – enabling them to advise a company in the context of the business issue specifically instead of “merely” dispensing pure legal advice.
To improve overall job performance, lawyers will need to improve their financial acumen, following a track similar to that of corporate executives. High-performing legal counsel will need to develop reputations as business-savvy advisors on a range of issues and strategies – such that they are considered a fully functioning member of a team who “just happens to be a lawyer.”
We are all aware that the context of any situation is extremely important and lawyers are often trained to focus only on identifying and managing risk. While important, this needs to be seen within the context of the business and the transaction as a whole. Because if you are able to understand why an organisation is looking to invest in a new start-up and what are they looking to achieve – you will be better equipped to undertake due diligences or drive the right deal. It’s obvious that tomorrow’s client will want more than just an interpretation of legislation or a contract drafted. They want to engage and work with lawyers who have a deep understanding of their business environment. Lawyers that understand the challenges and risks that the business deals with and are able to better guide the business to make healthier and faster decisions.
An all-in-one package
Tomorrow’s lawyer (needed today) will need to be at ease with technology. With the increasing development of new legal tech globally, there will be a strong demand for legal professionals (both external and in-house) who at least have experience with this type of tech. Legal professionals will need to be able to use technological tools aimed at simplifying practice management, knowledge management as well as communication, collaboration and legal innovation across many departments and disciplines.
So to summarise – lawyers who stand out from the crowd will be able to read balance sheets, understand profit and loss statements, be able to work easily with technology, possess at least a working knowledge of finance, have good relationships with finance teams, possess team building and leadership skills, and collaborate well with leaders of other functions such as finance, human resources, information technology, research and development, marketing, and sales. Coupled with critical thinking, business development, sales and marketing, influencing skills, business acumen, emotional intelligence, project management, leadership, negotiation, teamwork and problem-solving capabilities. Ultimately it seems that having a suite of business knowledge and skills will be key to success for the future lawyer.
And that is seemingly a tall order.
But this change in thinking and the notion of “we want more” from our legal teams has been happening for a while, Covid has simply accelerated the pace with which these additional attributes are required.
These additional attributes were made a necessity for lawyers when the shift to remote work happened, forcing law firms to move to a world of instant messaging, shared documents and virtual meetings, after historic reservations about adopting technological innovation.
Coupled with the economic conditions that are slowly emerging in 2020 (and in to 2021), lawyers will need to start saying “what else can I do for you”? Not stopping with just expensing legal advice (we know – it sounds absurd).
It comes down to this – the lawyer of the future has to step away from wanting to be the sole expert and work together with in-house legal teams and other departments across the business to solve problems. Lawyers will need to step up, roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, ensuring that they remain relevant and competitive in today’s uncertain and ever-changing climate.
But how do we do THAT?
Well, it’s not as easy as 1, 2, and 3 – presto. There is no real step-by-step process. You honestly need to read often about technological advances, get guidance from finance teams on how to read balance sheets etc – collaborate with colleagues in different departments (a sort of cross pollination of expertise), read up on companies (especially if they are listed on the various Stock Exchanges) and ask a lot of questions.
But here are some key attributes that you can start working on today –
- Collaboration skills – this isn’t just about “working well in a team,” (essential as that is). This is about the ability to function in a multi-party work environment such that the process and outcome transcend the collective contribution — the whole surpasses the sum of the parts. Thanks to technological and social advances, this is how work is going to be done from now on. Lawyers who collaborate well possess the ability to identify and bring out the best others have to offer, to submerge their own positions and egos where necessary, in order to reach the optimal client outcome,
- Technological affinity – technological affinity is a core competence of all lawyers of tomorrow. If you cannot effectively and efficiently use-mail, the Internet, and mobile telephony, let alone the advanced legal tech that is crucial now, you may as well stay home. And if you don’t care to learn about legal tech, clients and colleagues will pass you by;
- Commercial Awareness – commercial awareness crops up everywhere and essentially means having a broad understanding of current affairs and business news and how developments are likely to affect the firm and its clients. It is crucial that if you are working for a large corporate (or are advising a large corporate) that you keep up to date with all their business dealings, including markets (whether global or local) always being aware of local and global market trends that can affect the company (and this can extend from local news to various indices to even “hallway gossip”);
- Financial literacy – running a business, balancing a ledger, understanding tax principles, working with statistics, calculating profit margins and even explaining the rationale behind your fees requires at least some form of financial literacy. These are all crucial aspects that future lawyers will need to get to grips with. “Not being good with numbers” is no longer an excuse – financial literacy is essential;
- Creative Problem Solving – people often consider the law profession void of creativity but the opposite is true. The answer to a client’s problem may not be obvious and your job will be to explore new avenues, arguments and ideas to achieve the desired result – often requiring you to “think outside the box”. Embrace that;
- Complex problem solving – historically, lawyers have focused on obtaining the perfect answer or solution, but currently, the challenge is that solutions are becoming more The approach has changed, and thus it is pertinent for lawyers to keep asking the question “Why?” to reach a better solution;
- Project management – planning, organising, and managing resources to successfully complete specific objectives while maintaining scope, quality, time and budget restrictions are crucial. Lawyers seem perversely unwilling to estimate time or budget costs (invoking the almighty “it depends” clause) and incapable of creating and managing a plan of action. But lawyers need to get to grips with this as soon as possible – your clients will expect it;
- Emotional intelligence – lawyers first and foremost are providing a service to their clients and your practice should be geared towards their needs. This involves listening and taking time to understand their individual concerns. It is rare that clients will have a detailed knowledge of the law – that is why they come to you. It is therefore critical that you are able to explain matters in terms that they will understand rather than using overly technical language;
- Attention to Detail – you will always be faced with large and sometimes unclear documents and the ability to spot key pieces of information is essential. Take your time when reading documents and work on staying focused to ensure accuracy, and
- Research Skills – dedicate time to using a variety of resources. Using a range of sources will not only broaden your knowledge but will also ensure you have the full picture, increasingly important in an era of ‘fake news’.
While the above is not an exhaustive list of the attributes that tomorrow’s lawyer will require today, it is a helpful start on what you can start working on. Don’t forget, part of being more than just a lawyer requires you to be technologically savvy. And an easy way to do this is to partner with a suitably qualified enterprise software provider, such as AJS.
Get in touch with AJS today to see how we can assist you to become more than the lawyer you already are.
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