BigLaw 2020: A brave new world

By Jerome Doraisamy|03 May 2020
A brave new world

The emergence and substantial influence of knowledge, innovation, tech and project management positions in BigLaw firms not only up-end BigLaw workplaces as we know them – they are building a vocational marketplace befitting the modern environment.

“The technological and competitive disruption to our industry is difficult to overstate and demands bold leadership from every law firm to stay commercially relevant,” says Gilbert + Tobin Chief knowledge and innovation officer Caryn Sandler.

For a period of time, the rise of artificial intelligence was perceived by pockets of the legal community, both here and overseas, to be a threat to the long-term job security of professionals such as lawyers. Law students alike conveyed concern, which was perhaps heightened by already-present existential dread about the perceived perception of a bottleneck of jobs in legal practice post-graduation. Broader societal misunderstanding and underappreciation for the nature and scope of AI likely contributed to such an impression, as did potentially certain reporting by media outlets across the globe.

What has instead become apparent is that the advent of new technologies, processes and – consequently – ways of creative professional thinking have opened both the lawyers of today and tomorrow to a brave new world of vocational possibilities. There is no clearer demonstration of such possibilities than the birth of new offerings and teams from the big end of town.

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The creation of, and place within, BigLaw firms of teams for knowledge, innovation, legal tech and project management help create a legal professional services environment that would have been utterly foreign at the turn of the century. So often chastised as an archaic vocation steeped in tradition, the legal profession is showing its unflinching willingness to adapt and grow – thereby allowing those coming through the ranks to flourish in ways previous generations may never have been able to realise.

To unpack the various paths on which BigLaw firms are hurtling down, Lawyers Weekly spoke with Ms Sandler; Baker McKenzie director of knowledge for Asia Pacific Anna Maloney; Allens head of legaltech product lab and innovation Penelope Barr; and King & Wood Mallesons head of legal project management Kerryn Underwood.

Why are such roles being introduced?

To decipher the change, each interviewee was asked about the nature and importance of their roles, and why implementation of such positions and surrounding teams may be a must-have rather than a nice-to-have moving forward.

Ms Maloney explained that her role as director of knowledge for Bakers, in a nutshell, is about “putting tools and resources at the fingertips of our lawyers to enable them to better serve our clients”.

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“The goal of everything we do is to improve client service, whether improving efficiency through the use of standard form precedents, or through the introduction of an innovation such as an automated drafting tool,” she says.

Knowledge management is not necessarily new to the Asia-Pacific region, for which she is responsible, but notes that it is more developed in countries such as Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“The [knowledge lawyer] role (often called [professional support lawyer]), for example, has been around for many years. There are two macro trends, however, that have driven the evolution and increased investment in KM over the last decade or so. These are, firstly, the developments in technology that have made the collection, analysis and management of knowledge much easier than it was before and, secondly, the global financial downturn, which has brought with it a much greater focus on cost management and a desire to improve efficiency. This has resulted in the evolution of a number of different kinds of [knowledge] roles over the years,” she says.

For BigLaw firms such as Bakers, there are added complexities for knowledge professionals that arise from the breadth and scale of the businesses, Ms Maloney muses.

“[Therefore] we need someone to ensure that we are continually working to improve the collection, retrieval and delivery of knowledge content across jurisdictions, practices and industry groups and that this work is properly aligned.”

Firms who fail to adapt and introduce such functions will be putting themselves at risk, she warns: “Simply put, there is a risk that firms may be left behind in a rapidly changing legal market. No clients are willing to pay for firms to “reinvent the wheel” and, frankly, who can blame them?”

On the legal project management (LPM) front, Ms Underwood says there has been a need for roles dedicated to “scoping, planning and monitoring tasks for matters which not only improve our clients’ experience but also improve the wellbeing of our lawyers and supporting staff”.

At KWM, she is charged to “work with, educate and support the practice groups at KWM in the use of LPM to improve the delivery of legal services to our clients.  This involves supporting them in embedding LPM into their daily practice management and supporting them by deploying trained legal project managers that are a dedicated to specific matters”.

“The need for this sort of service has numerous drivers, one of the foremost being that our clients operate in competitive commercial environments where they are continually asked to deliver more with less.  We see LPM as one of the solutions to that challenge,” she outlines.

“Used effectively, LPM should be able to provide more certainty in the delivery of legal matters on time and on budget, which helps our clients succeed in the management of their organisation’s goals.”

This becomes especially essential, Ms Underwood adds, because clients are now “regularly” making requests for detailed information on the firm’s LPM practice in pitches and tenders.

“If you can’t offer this adjunct professional service, firms simply won’t be able to meet client needs,” she says.

Elsewhere, Ms Sandler is responsible – as chief knowledge and innovation officer – to bring about change at G+T “by architecting innovations in legal process, technology and capability development”.

“This will necessarily involve identifying and leveraging technology to [seek] opportunities for new ways of working and build the capabilities of lawyers to [futureproof] their careers and be a true business partner to our clients and support them with strategic rather than strictly legal services, using the latest technology and legal innovation,” she says.

Ms Sandler’s role was introduced to “[futureproof] the firm and meet evolving client demands head-on”.

“Traditional BigLaw firms are facing increased competition from new law firms, consulting firms developing law departments and other disrupters, and must swiftly evolve their approach to practicing the law. BigLaw firms must become more efficient as clients push back on traditional hourly rates approach with increasing cost consciousness and lawyers must upskill to be ‘future-ready’,” she explains.

“Roles such as these have been introduced to the private practice environment to ensure that the firm stays ahead of technology and has a competitive advantage over other law firms and consultancies offering legal services. Internally, the role could only be established if it successfully challenged the assumption that legal operations and innovation were support (overhead) functions. It repositions the role of innovation to be an integrated part of high-value legal services, with the potential to generate its own revenue.

“Technological advancements in the profession have also presented opportunities to improve efficiencies and accuracy for clients. As such, this role ensures that focus is given to embedding technologies such as AI and developing tech platforms, to improve due diligence efficiency.”

In line with the sentiments expressed by Ms Maloney and Ms Underwood, Ms Sandler highlights the inextricable place of such roles given how competition between the BigLaw space and NewLaw players and consultancy firms who have access to global technology and scale will likely only increase.

“If you don’t quickly adapt and introduce these roles, the risk is that your talent base won’t be ready for the change that is coming. Firms need to invest now or risk not having a workforce with the right skills to compete going forward,” she theorises.

In the legal tech production space, Ms Barr refers to two pillars of responsibility in her role: “Embedding innovation from the ground up, as part of the firm’s DNA with the aim of helping lawyers (and clients) use new tools and techniques to deliver more value and sourcing, researching and generating ideas to transform and reshape our current ways of working for today and tomorrow”.

Allens created her role and refreshed the firm’s legaltech product lab, with her at its helm, she says, because the legal profession – like many other industries before it – is “undergoing a transformation”.

“Clients are increasingly curious, cost-conscious and require more transparency around value-based outcomes. In the Product Lab, we’ve got leading specialists in innovation, technology, product, design and strategy all working together to build our suite of products, including our 'a+ solutions',” she lays out.

“Some of these products have the potential to radically change the day-to-day experience for lawyers, enabling them to engage in higher order tasks, where previously this might have required repetitive and time-consuming work.”

The new technologies being managed, including AI and machine learning, have given birth to a new element of competition within the legal marketplace, according to Ms Barr.

“Firms choosing not to embrace new ways of working may find themselves pushed to change by clients. The changes happening in the law are in response to market demands and make good business sense because they add value for clients and for the future generation lawyers,” she says.

How these roles will improve the BigLaw offering

Whilst the fear of falling behind the pack will undoubtedly serve as some level of incentive for BigLaw firms to continually evolve, the stronger and more obvious driver is the myriad benefits to be reaped from rethinking the operations and service offerings of a firm, as well as flow-on opportunities for professionals employed by said firms.

Within the BigLaw environment, there has been a “shift in the mindset” of partners and lawyers as to the real value of innovation and related modern operational structures, Ms Sandler explains.

“Legal technology and process change has a positive commercial influence and offers an incremental service for clients. It allows the lawyers to partner with clients and add value – you become a broader strategic business partner with broader business skills,” she says.

“Upskilling lawyers in legal innovation and technology is critical. It rounds out people’s experience and allow lawyers to grow. Learning skill such as design thinking, allows for a richer and broader career experience. Our approach to innovation and using technology to increase efficiencies, allow us to have a better client offering. Clients have been attracted by our ability to equally apply legal expertise with legal tech project management.”

Part of the value espoused by Ms Sandler is that BigLaw firms will be more “relevant to clients”, Ms Maloney notes, by way of being better placed to help them grow and advance their interests.

“We will be able to provide insights, which will help them deliver and shape their business decisions and strategy. And we will be more competitive because we have harnessed the process improvements and efficiencies that an effective [knowledge] function can deliver,” she posits.

Ms Underwood supports this, flagging that the benefits to clients will be “intangible”.

This is especially true, she continues, “in the greater transparency regarding management of costs, timing and expectations when it comes to individual matters”.

“For our people, they benefit from systems and processes that are designed to monitor workloads as well as proactively manage them,” she adds.

Moreover, there is a chance – at least while the legal tech sector is still in the infancy stages – that disruption can and will lead to the creation of new business opportunities in innovation and product delivery, Ms Barr suggests.

This, she points out, will see the legal profession follow a similar imaginative path as explored by related industries, highlighting Allens’ experience on this front: “One part of what we’re doing is focusing on building our existing ‘a+ solutions’ product suite, to further meet market demand to provide technology-enabled solutions for particular client problems. Another avenue we’re exploring is partnering with [start-ups] and innovative businesses to develop solutions to improve the way lawyers work,” she says.

Evolution of such roles in the coming decade

If there’s one thing we can predict for the evolving BigLaw market – in a new-age environment with increasingly unpredictable shifts in creativity and processing – is that legal service delivery will not remain stagnant in the new decade.

The trends that the legal profession has witnessed over the past 10-15 years, Ms Maloney hypothesises, will most certainly continue in the 2020s. This means that we will see further developments in technology – “especially in the field of artificial intelligence” – which will allow firms to streamline and automate more elements of legal work, she says, and also analyse the work they undertake in greater detail, she says.

Ms Maloney expects further investment in knowledge management to continue as it has flowed over the last 10 years, given that the function is “increasingly recognised for the value and efficiency” it can bring to legal practices.

“And, the roles within the [knowledge] function will continue to evolve: 10 or 20 years ago, the ‘traditional’ view of KM was a knowledge lawyer who writes precedents or delivers training, or a [librarian] who manages a physical collection of books,” she adds.

“Knowledge roles are evolving, and we now need a much broader range of skills alongside some of the traditional core competencies. As a firm, we are investing now for the future by ensuring we have the right people in the right roles doing the right things."

LPM roles, Ms Underwood says, will be “instrumental” to how legal professionals in the BigLaw space operate moving forward, and will have a “long-term positive effect” on their work.

“Also, more active involvement with clients in the initial stages of matters, particularly through the scoping and planning of matters, will help both [firms] and the client to reach a clearer and deeper understanding of their needs and objectives. Operationally, I think we will see a greater focus on reporting on matters and overall performance metrics,” she says.

Ms Barr feels similarly about legal tech positions in the BigLaw context: “Roles like mine are key to improving working practices because the introduction of technology-enabled solutions can streamline processes and expedite results. In the new decade, lawyers and innovators will continue to work together toward a shared objective – delivering the best outcomes for clients.”

For Ms Sandler, however, the mark left by such roles in the coming decade will be even more pronounced, proclaiming they will “revolutionise” the way that BigLaw firms operate across all areas of the business.

“Fundamentally, it will approach client work in a different way to drive efficiencies and offer an improved service. Legal service innovation teams will have the capacity and capability to provide lawyers with a non-traditional career path and a unique career experience. Legal service delivery will require more than just lawyers,” she outlines.

“The provision of law will come with a variety of skills sets across different disciplines. Our lawyers will not only be experts in law, but with training and experience in legal service innovation, they will be able to offer diversity of thought and a creative problem-solving and advisory mindset.”

Vocational offerings for the next generation

What is perhaps most interesting about the advent of these arms of BigLaw firms is how they give rise to a professional services environment for the emerging generation that is unlike what any previous law graduate was exposed to. Even just 10 years ago, “legal tech” wasn’t a term being bandied around, let alone spoken about in any depth.

Legal education in Australia and abroad is, of course, a vastly different beast today, and – despite long held stereotypical fears from students and graduates – not only is there a bevy of career options to choose from outside of private practice, it is those very firms whom some may consider to dominate the on-campus jobs conversation who can offer a platter of choices.

These exciting new and emerging opportunities in a changing legal profession are giving rise to an increasing number of grads and lawyers who are interested not just in practising law but also in working on legal innovation initiatives, Ms Sandler submits.

“Traditional lawyer roles have struggled to cater for this. While we will still need lawyers with strong technical expertise, the successful lawyer of the future must have this technical excellence, combined with very strong legal problem-solving and analytical skills, and the ability to present solutions and make sound business decisions for their client,” she reflects.

“They will need to be well rounded and understand what’s going on in the market and have empathy for their clients’ challenges in the broader societal, regulatory and political context.”

Until recently, she continues, there was no precedent for an innovation role within a law firm, for example, one was either or lawyer or they worked in a service function.

“While there are many lawyers straddling two different practice groups (e.g. construction/banking), combining an operations role with a legal role was a completely foreign concept. One major challenge for example is how to ensure inevitable client demands on the legal side would not end up monopolising 100 per cent of the lawyers’ time,” she says.

Looking at her own sector, Ms Underwood says that legal operations is a “growing discrete profession”, demonstrated by the volume of courses now being offered as part of law degrees together with the increasing number of post-grad courses available in the space.

“For junior practicing lawyers, being proactive in applying the LPM discipline in their practice groups and supporting their SAs and partners in the preparation of LPM communications and aides, will set them apart as great practitioners, with their finger on the pulse when it comes to understanding what the client needs and wants from the legal service providers,” she says.

Taking a more holistic approach, Ms Barr muses that in today’s world, there is a need for “lifelong learners”. In light of this, lawyers have a duty to remain curious and open-minded about new ideas and ways to continuously improve themselves and their service offering.

“Within your own firm, seek conversations with like-minded people and join any innovation squads or groups you can. For example, at Allens we recently had some clerks conduct part of their clerkship in Integrated Legal Solutions, which complements our Legal Product Lab, providing technology-enabled services to clients alongside our legal practices,” she recounts.

There is also an imperative, Ms Maloney identifies – at least in the knowledge space – for lawyers to share what they have learned, and detail their experience gained from advising clients in this space, with their colleagues and peers.

“For those who want to get involved on a more formal basis, they could choose to take on a ‘knowledge champion’ role, which would involve making a commitment to [knowledge sharing] within their practice or industry group and encouraging their colleagues to do the same. Later in their careers, they may even step into a knowledge lawyer role for a period of time – on a secondment to the knowledge team, for example – or as a career alternative,” she advises.

“I speak from experience, having made a commitment to [knowledge] sharing early in my career, and also having worked as a knowledge lawyer in our IPTech group for many years. A key priority for me is to encourage interaction with [knowledge] as a core part of every lawyer’s experience.”

Fundamentally, Ms Sandler surmises, BigLaw firms are now enabling the lawyers of today to be ready for the future “by engineering a fundamental shift” in how innovation is being viewed by those in power within the environment of those firms.

“It could no longer be treated by the partnership as an ancillary function or ‘nice-to-have’, but instead as something vital to the business and genuinely of equal importance to direct revenue-generating legal work,” she says.

Conclusion

The modern professional marketplace is evolving at a breakneck speed, and the BigLaw sector is pulling out all the stops to stay ahead of the game.

Two things are evident from the extent to which the big end of town is moving to ensure its service offerings are as environmentally conducive to client needs: one, the legal profession of tomorrow will likely look much different to today’s world, just as the present context varies wildly from that of the past, and two, such rapid if not radical shifts legal practice will continue to create new and exciting vocational opportunities for legal professionals to thrive.

Change, on this front, is not to be feared, as some may be prone to do. As BigLaw firms in Australia have demonstrated, and will continue to do so, such change is not only an opportunity – it’s an imperative.

BigLaw 2020: A brave new world
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