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Is my law firm preparing me for success in the next decade?

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Thomas Aertgeerts

Thomas Aertgeerts.

Exactly one year ago, I left my previous law firm because the answer to whether my law firm was preparing me for success in the next 10 years was no.

Sure, I worked at a top tier law firm in the traditional sense of the word: It had a strong focus on know-how, combined with the presence of renowned experts in the field.

However, as an individual professional, I wasn’t being prepared for the next 40 years of my career (or more, who knows how our pensions will evolve).

Every lawyer, from the solo practitioner to lawyers in large international firms, should ask themselves this question. For young lawyers and law students, this is even more important.

Their careers will be fundamentally different from those of the current partners in their law firms. The “gates to these partnerships” are closing, and traditional business models based on the billable hour will be disrupted.

6 trends to track

To stress the importance of legal innovation for individual lawyers, I’ve highlighted six major trends that demonstrate why you will need different skills to become successful in the next decade.

1. The world has changed, and lawyers should change with it.

The world has fundamentally changed, and lawyers should change with it and adapt. We are currently in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution that will lead to exponential changes to the way we live, work and relate to one another.

“The pace of change has never been this fast, and yet it will never be this slow again,” according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Innovation, technology and digital transformation will impact and (further) disrupt every sector. The disruption has not fully reached the legal sector. However, disruption is coming, and the only question is when? Lawyers need to be aware of these evolutions and be proactive to remain future-proof.

2. New world, new skills.

In a new world, lawyers need new skills. The World Economic Forum issued a list of the 10 skills you need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. In five years, between 2015 and 2020, 35% of the skills that were considered important, have changed. Skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, initiative and ideation are and will become increasingly important. Yet traditional legal work does not prepare us to excel in these skills.

3. Innovation is what differentiates lawyers from their peers.

Innovative lawyers gain a competitive advantage over their peers. Legal knowledge and the ability to interpret the law is not a unique selling point anymore. It is a prerequisite to start as a lawyer. A large number of lawyers are able to interpret and apply the law. The number of lawyers that can actually come up with creative solutions that go beyond the law and are embedded in a changing world is much, much smaller.

4. Alternative legal services providers are the real competitors.

Lawyers’ real competitors are not other law firms but alternative legal services providers. ALSPs can loosely be categorized as any nonlawyer providing legal services. Clients require effective solutions for a broad portfolio of legal work. To them, it is irrelevant whether lawyers or nonlawyers are performing this work.

ASLPs are a multibillion-dollar industry, and they are growing at an incredible pace. Moreover, these innovators are already delivering law better, faster and cheaper than a traditional law firm. Lawyers who want to be successful should be willing to learn from these ASLPs.

5. The Big Four are leading by example.

The Big Four are successfully continuing their expansion into the legal services industry. They enjoy a competitive advantage since innovation, collaboration and multidisciplinary teamwork are part of their DNA. Lawyers and legal consultants who are part of the Big Four network are encouraged, trained and equipped to become 21st-century-proof professionals. This leads to exponential professional growth, both on the level of the individuals as on the level of the Big Four themselves.

Even today, the “tax and legal work” revenue of any individual Big Four dwarves that of Kirkland & Ellis, the top-grossing law firm worldwide. This demonstrates that the Big Four have the relationships, the scale and the technology to become the world’s largest and best legal services providers.

6. Clients’ expectations have changed.

Clients expect more. The proliferation of new laws leads to increasingly complex legal advice. Moreover, clients are no longer satisfied with a mere interpretation of the law. They want actionable content that is understandable and business oriented. Clients expect more for less. Decreasing budgets for legal departments put pressure on legal counsels and lawyers alike. Lawyers have to deliver their increasingly complex services cheaper, better and faster.

Clients expect different services. They are looking for preventive lawyering as opposed to traditional reactive lawyering where the problem has to arise first. Clients expect new services. Our clients operate in the same changed world as we do. They require their lawyers to guide them and expect new innovative types of advice. They are looking at us to help manage the change, to leverage technology differently, and to partner together collaboratively.

Technology-enabled innovation will be key to meet the clients’ new expectations. Law firms that successfully embed these in their practice will be able to grow exponentially.

Where to start?

OK, I see why I need different skills, but where should I start? Even though these evolutions are apparent, most lawyers are not being prepared to become future-proof. The majority of law schools, bar associations and law firms worldwide are slow in adapting to these changing circumstances.

In general, law is still being taught and practiced in the same ways it was 40 years ago. At the same time, multiple initiatives are being set up by true innovators and early adopters; you just have to find them.

If you want to start your legal innovation journey, I suggest the following three steps:

Read and listen. Be curious and look for articles, books and podcasts that will help you better understand current evolutions (I Included some tips below).

Connect and share. Look for the early adopters, connect with them and share experiences. These are the people that will make an impact in the next decade.

Experiment. Try something new, such as making your own legal tech solution, or step away from the billable hour and try a managed legal service. Don’t stop at the awareness part but be part of the change.

Suggested books and podcasts:

• Michele Destefano, Legal Upheaval

• Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future

• Legal Talk Network, Law Technology Now

Sources and further reading:

• The Singapore Academy of Law, Legal Technology Vision: Towards the Digital Transformation of the Legal Sector

• Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution

• Peter F. Drucker, “The Information Executives Truly Need” (Harvard Business Review, January/February 1995)

• World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report 2018

• Dan Packel, “Big Law’s Trojan Horse: Are the Big Four Preparing an Invasion?”

• David Curle, “Alternative Legal Service Providers: Changing Buyer Perception”

• The Lawstars Blog, “3 Charts That Show the Unstoppable Growth of Legal Tech”

• The Lawstars Blog, “Legal Tech Hits $1 Billion Investment as Lawyers Embrace Automation”

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published Jan. 8, 2020, on Digital Lawyer Digest.

Thomas Aertgeerts is a Belgian lawyer. After heading legal innovation and technology projects at K Law, part of the KPMG network, he co-founded a startup called Aeco Legal Tech. He is also a member of the steering committee of two legal tech and innovation programs at the University of Antwerp. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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