Future of Law, Lawyers, Law Firms, Corporate Legal, Attorneys, Legal Counsel

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* Video of keynote at NetlawMedia event. Patrick Dixon has worked with senior teams of leading law firms such as Linklaters and Freshfields, as well as lecturing to many thousands of lawyers, including corporate legal teams of multinationals, on a wide range of law-related trends.

The practice of law is changing very rapidly, mainly due to a combination of technology and globalization.  Traditional Law Firms and Law Schools are being left behind rapidly.

Lawyers have enjoyed being part of a relatively protected and exclusive community, with few price pressures, little transparency over cost structures, billing by the hour, rather than offering fixed price deals, and a mystique that until now has meant they faced few challenges from their clients in the way they worked.

The future will be far less comfortable.  Successful Law Firms will require far stronger customer focus: under promising and over delivering, exceeding expectations every time.  It means deep insight into what it actually feels like to be a customer, with an intuitive understanding of what really matters. 

Here are 10 key legal trends which relate to each other to differing degrees, depending on where you are in the world:

1.  Deregulation
– eg in UK, with approval of the so-called Tesco Law, allowing corporations to offer a wide range of legal services.  Traditional Law Firms are now able to raise capital in the market through public share listings, and rapidly expand, in competition with any company who wishes to enter the same market.  Expect changes in the way that legal services are marketed.

2. Outsourcing – Forrester estimates that outsourcing of legal services to emerging markets could be an industry worth more than $4 billion by 2015.  Many tens of thousands of legal jobs have already moved offshore – mostly lower grade roles for tasks such as document preparation.  Some of this is outsourcing to Law Firms in the same nation, the rest is offshoring, particularly to India, where hourly cost may be only 10-20% of a US or European equivalent.  Legal Process Outsourcing will continue to grow rapidly as corporations become more confident that issues relating to confidentiality and security are being dealt with. As part of this shift, we are also seeing huge growth of new legal graduates in nations like India – over 20,000 a year.

3. Globalisation – as legal requirements of multinational clients grow more complex, many Law Firms have globalized to keep pace, offering specialist advice in many different countries, as well as centers of excellence in specialty areas.

4. Virtual Law Firms – in the past, many of the best-known Firms drew most of their talent from a small geographic area, often in competition with other leading Firms.  Most staff sat in traditional offices, where they saw clients, and worked full time.  Virtual Law Firms are growing very fast in numbers. They may have a very small physical office, with team members working from home or various other locations, maybe part-time.   They benefit from the fact that it is unusual these days for people to go and see a lawyer.  More often, the lawyer will visit them – especially the case in corporate legal practice.  Team members often work on a freelance basis, earning most of the fees they generate, which is unheard of in larger, traditional Firms.

5. Legal search engines, and other web-based legal services.  Companies like CyberSettle, LegalZoom and CompleteCase are changing the way that members of the public get legal help and advice.  The number of standard legal forms available online is growing fast, often supplied with minor customization.  Social networking is allowing people to locate others with the knowledge or experience they need, with a couple of mouse clicks.

6. Commoditization: separating out all repetitive tasks, or ones requiring low grade knowledge and skills, from those that require a full legal training, and experience; use of computer systems to produce a growing range of sophisticated documents.

7. Multichannel communications:
many Legal Firms were slow to adopt email in the 1980s and 1990s, and are lagging far behind today’s clients in their non-use of social media, video links, Google+ and other means of digital contact.

8. Growing numbers of lawsuits in every nation, as citizens become more aware of their legal rights and opportunities to claim compensation.  Huge growth of no-win, no-fee deals with clients, enabling low income claimants to go to court. Industrial scale searches for potential medical injury clients by companies who then feed leads following events like auto accidents into the “system” in return for fees for each referral. 

9. Reduced state funding for those on low incomes in court cases, as part of austerity cutbacks.

10. Rapid growth in complexity of legislation and regulations in many parts of the world, with explosion in compliance costs for all businesses, particularly those in financial services as a direct result of recent economic crisis.

What will be the net impact of all this on earnings for lawyers?  Is Law still a good career choice?  The answer is that it depends where you are and in what specialty.

At the top end, the best specialist advisors will continue to be highly prized and will be rewarded very generously.

Middle level lawyers will continue to be in demand, but with increasing pressure on fees, expected to work harder with less staff support, less use of office resources, and more use of technology.  However, at the same time it will be easier in future for lawyers to work part-time, to take career breaks, work from home and so on.

Those doing fairly routine legal tasks in expensive nations will find themselves in competition with online automation, with new non-traditional retail competitors (in countries like the UK), and with human beings with far better qualifications in emerging nations.

Those that wish to future-proof their careers will focus on areas that require specialist knowledge, keep ahead in digital innovation and social media, and invest in key relationships – both clients and potential employers.


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May 30, 2013 - 13:00

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