Technology has been a powerful catalyst for change in industries across the globe. As COVID-19 flipped our world upside down seemingly overnight in March, technology has served an even more prominent role in our lives. The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of many companies, which is a reality law firms could be facing soon as well. Here are two potential changes to consider in the legal workspace moving forward: (1) a reduction in the value of face time as firms enter the digital age; and (2) an evolving skillset required from new attorneys as legal tech becomes more important in a firm’s operation.
Just as schools have quickly transitioned to virtual learning since the pandemic hit, firms have had to replace in-person contact with virtual video conferencing. Although initially a temporary shift, remote work could have lasting effects on the value that firms place on face time and the stigma that can sometimes be associated with working from home. An abundance of “face time,” the act of being physically present at the office, has historically been viewed as requirement for new associates to succeed at a big law firm. But, as COVID-19 continues to see a resurgence in periodic waves, safety concerns have forced firms to keep in-person contact to a minimum. This past summer, we saw an unprecedented change in the way law firms handled their summer associate programs, with almost all of them converting to some form of remote, virtual programming. While many students and associates are eager for a return to normalcy, the pandemic may reduce the value that a firm places on the quantity of face time an associate provides. As associates and partners adapt to working remotely, video conferencing may replace a substantial portion of the in-person interaction that would have taken place pre-COVID. Additionally, with salaries and real estate remaining the two greatest fixed costs of law firms, firms may turn to scaling down office space when looking to cut costs. The high expense of real estate, a long-standing consideration that could see increased emphasis during this pandemic, may further drive a shift away from physical interaction toward remote work and virtual communication.
Legal tech is another force that is shaping the future of the legal industry. Legal tech is defined as technology that can assist the legal profession in becoming more efficient. For example, Reed Smith’s GravityStack is a suite of software that offers services such as management of contracts by artificial intelligence and real-time data and metadata analysis of a firm’s work. Emerging legal tech can bring a host of implications; some of the most cynical involve a growing sense of worry that robots will replace humans in certain jobs. To the great relief of some, there are others that believe legal technology will not displace lawyers, but instead will simply require lawyers to shift their skills. As the legal landscape changes and firms turn to software, students and practicing attorneys could be required to develop a new set of skills that involves an intimate familiarity with modern technology. As firms strive to become more efficient, it is only sensible that they would expect their new associates to integrate into the digitalization and modernization of the workspace. Just as doctors are being trained to operate new medical technology, lawyers might face the same learning challenges.
In addition to a familiarity with technology, other qualities and soft skills may become increasingly important. Tasks and responsibilities that involve a great deal of repetition could be the first to be replaced or streamlined through new software. Document review, which has typically been one of the tasks that consumes a significant portion of an associate’s time, now only comprises four percent of their hours. As traditional legal tasks become automated, firms could look to other qualities and skills that associates can contribute to their firm. One quality in particular is business acumen. According to Jennifer Mnookin, dean of the Law School at UCLA, there is a growing trend for large law firms to start thinking more like businesses. This means that aspiring associates who are aiming for partnership could be analyzed through a business development lens and judged on their ability to grow the firm, as opposed to pure lawyering talent.
Recognition of this changing requirement for the modern lawyer can be seen across top law schools as they implement programs and initiatives on developing practical skills necessary for working in the digital era. One such example is Penn Law’s Future of the Profession Initiative. The Initiative’s purpose is to offer programming that is aimed at developing important skills of the future lawyer in the context of a legal landscape being transformed by technology. Another example is Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age clinic, which focuses on offering students practical experience in contemporary lawyering.
Whether the aforementioned trends surge forward in the face of COVID-19 or slow down as things return to normalcy, the legal landscape is undoubtedly undergoing a transformation. How lawyers adapt in the face of those changes—whatever they may be—will be an urgent issue for lawyers at every level in the profession.