What does it mean to be a lawyer? The definition is changing

The legal profession looks a lot different than it did a decade or two ago. As alternative operating structures take off, so do new risks.

Developments in technology are transforming how legal work is done, who can compete in the marketplace and what clients expect for their money.

The new generation of legal professionals has different expectations of employers and more choices about where and how to work, so they can be more selective about where they build their career.

These shifts are pushing firms to evolve into comprehensive consultancies that partner with clients to solve a wide range of business challenges.

“The legal profession is changing, with technology making law firms reassess how they complete work, train new lawyers and provide value to clients who understand how firms can use technology to support and expedite legal work,” said Sharon Glynn, director of underwriting at Travelers Europe.

“New opportunities are emerging from this, along with changes and risks that firms and lawyers have to navigate.”

Redefining what success looks like

To varying degrees, law firms are making employee- and client-facing changes to accommodate the evolving marketplace.

Some firms are embracing broader possibilities for internal career progression, or are acknowledging a one-size-fits-all approach to climbing the ladder doesn’t match the priorities of the next generation of legal talent.

For example, research has found that while new lawyers continue to be financially motivated, they are voicing more concerns about wellbeing sacrifices than previous generations of lawyers did.

This has spurred some firms to develop shorter paths to partner, allow lawyers to bill fewer hours, and make it possible for employees to become non-partner professional lawyers.

Similarly, a PwC report documenting the “rise of the non-linear lawyer” points to an increase in the number of legal professionals less defined by their identity as lawyers.

Instead, they see themselves as legal facilitators who partner with the business to generate revenue.

Along the way, they have career trajectories that may sound unconventional, with stints at start-ups, legal technology vendors or disparate business areas within a firm.

This is changing how firms provide continuous learning and development at team level.

At a time when technology is reducing the need for new lawyers to pore over reams of documents, a focus on new ways of training is helping these employees keep a finger on the pulse of changes in the marketplace, develop a more holistic business perspective, and identify additional ways to provide value to clients.

It may also expose them to new mentors and areas of expertise as legal teams become broader and more cross-functional.

On the client side, firms are finding ways to develop deeper relationships and partnerships that provide value.

Some are exploring alternative fee arrangements including subscription models, for example, to improve cost predictability and forge stronger connections with clients.

They are also focusing on enhancing communication with clients – through developing dedicated relationship managers and teams, strengthening feedback mechanisms, and training teams on softer skills that can make clients feel heard and understood.

Staying abreast of opportunity while monitoring risks

These changes can generate new opportunities for legal professionals and revenue streams for firms. Still, there are important risks to consider.

That’s especially true as advances in generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), in conjunction with automation tools long used in firms, are making it possible for firms to complete work faster and more efficiently than before.

But while AI-supported tools have the power to dissect mounds of data in seconds, predict the outcome of litigation and create more tailored services for clients, they have also revealed their potential for introducing bias and outright inaccuracies.

Organisations offering legal services must have mechanisms in place to manage these vulnerabilities.

At the same time, AI is levelling the playing field in the legal services market by creating entry points for smaller firms, corporate law departments and other organisations unable to compete with larger law firms in the past.

These changes are putting pressure on law firms to adapt from within while keeping an eye on new sources of competition.

Beyond using technology to support client services, firms may also be motivated to expand into new practice areas in a competitive market.

While this can generate opportunities for firms to cross-sell complementary services and more easily weather downturns in specific practice areas, it can also expose a firm to risks.

This is particularly true if a firm enters less familiar practice areas where it doesn’t have the appropriate institutional knowledge or staff training in place.

Internal and external pressures may push firms to make business decisions quickly, yet they also require firms to have a higher level of vigilance concerning emerging risks.

“To succeed in this environment, law firms must juggle an evolving range of demands,” said Glynn.

“They have to make thoughtful decisions about the legal services they offer, make appropriate investments in technology to support their services, consider how the adoption of new tools will impact legal services and clients’ perceptions of their services, and develop the kinds of workplaces where new legal talent has opportunities to learn, grow and strike a sustainable work-life balance.

“As an insurer, we help law firms stay aware of the risks inherent in this changing market so they are in a stronger position to seize the opportunities before them."

How alternative legal service providers are changing the market

Research demonstrates how the landscape for legal services is shifting.

The 2023 Thomson Reuters biennial report on the market for alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) found that between 2019 and 2021, the ALSP market expanded at a compound annual growth rate of 20%, a 5% increase over the previous two years.

It indicates that ALSPs developed by law firms represent the fastest growing segment of the market.

The research reveals a progressive blurring of boundaries between ALSPs, traditional law firms, corporate law departments, and even technology and software firms.

It’s notable that more law firms are exploring the use of ALSPs in their own work: 26% of the largest firms plan to increase spending to tap into the specialised expertise they can offer.4

For example, technology expertise is a compelling draw. By accessing it through an ALSP, a firm without in-house tech knowledge can put itself in position to offer legal services with greater efficiency and scale – and thereby compete with a larger range of organisations providing legal services.

More legal professionals are also working within ALSPs to gain flexibility in how they manage their work and leverage to maintain work-life balance and mental wellbeing.

But while lawyers can benefit from working in this way, firms and legal professionals alike will need to consider risk management and insurance cover designed to protect against their new exposures.

The information provided is for general information purposes only. It does not constitute legal or professional advice nor a recommendation to any individual or business of any product or service.

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