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Evolving Skill Sets in Law

By Martha Breil posted 04-30-2020 14:37


Evolving Skill Sets in Law

There is ample evidence that the practice of law is evolving. It is a topic covered frequently in industry publications, educational programming, blogs, and in the mainstream media. An increasing number of Am Law 100 firms are marketing not only their legal services but also their legal-operational services to their clients. Alternative Legal Service providers are now in the mix even in the United States. Practice innovation leaders and teams have become relatively common as many traditional knowledge and/or practice management teams have shifted their focus to encompass innovation as well as traditional KM responsibilities. It stands to reason that as legal practices evolve, so too must the skill sets of those of us who work in the legal industry.

What do legal industry changes mean to the skill sets required in the practice of law?

Fundamentally it means law school curriculum needs to include courses on legal technology and business management in addition to the standard legal ones.  Firms that want to develop and retain their top legal talent and thrive should consider providing development and training programs for management (like project, business, & process) and technology related to the practice of law. Providing mentoring and development for legal work alone is no longer sufficient.

Lawyers entering the profession need to “own their development” and begin to view technical and management proficiency as not optional for a successful, long-term career practicing law. There is a quote we use at my firm when training lawyers on new legal technologies that sums it up relatively well. “Technology is not going to replace lawyers but lawyers who embrace technology will replace those who don’t.” While this may be less true for lawyers who are seasoned partners, it likely will for junior partners and associates.

What does this change mean to the skills set required in the administrative areas of firms?

It means traditional administrative groups need to balance managing operations with innovation more than ever before. Yes, document management systems, financial systems, and email will continue to be business critical applications, but so too will many of today’s “edge” applications. Roles in finance will continue evolving in the direction of pricing and require skills like data analytics and visualization, which were fairly niche until recently. Across the board, it means the fiefdoms all too common in many firms need to die. To be efficient and effective, administrative staff need to reach across organizational silos, be intellectually curious, and partner to deliver optimal solutions with shared, managed, and high quality (accurate) data.

Like lawyers, administrative staff also need to “own their development” by pursing certifications, attending conferences (even the virtual alternatives that will likely become the norm during the pandemic), leveraging the vast programming resources and peer networking opportunities offered by the International Legal Technology Organization (ILTA), reading and listening to legal industry publications and podcasts, finding a mentor, and building relationships with peers across the administrative fiefdoms. Many law firms are too small to offer staff development and management training programs that large corporations and professional services firms often offer. Administrative staff who want to evolve their skills in a manner that keeps pace with the changing industry need to take initiative and invest in their own professional development.  

How does the current pandemic affect the evolving skill sets needed?

From a glass-half full perspective, the pandemic seems to be eroding the lawyer versus non-lawyer dichotomy in the legal industry. It is apparent now that firms are dependent on their administrative functions to run. Many law-firm leaders have been very vocal and appreciative of this reality. All functional areas of the firm are in this together and many firms are trying to do their best to retain talent while still managing the bottom line. This is commendable.

It is still too soon to tell how the pandemic will affect skill sets needed in the legal industry long-term. The obvious skill sets in demand now are those directly related to ensuring stable and secure remote work infrastructure. Additional skills emerging as critical in the midst of this include: business continuity and crisis management; knowledge, project, process, change, and experience management; business development.

As a final comment on longer term impacts, I think there are better than even odds that firms will relax their stances about working on location, particularly in markets where real estate is at a premium. This conceivably will open up the job market for employees and ease recruiting challenges in smaller markets. Let’s celebrate what we can right now. 

 Some additional blogs on topics loosely related to the evolving skill set one include:


#Knowledge Management and Search