What makes a law firm future-ready?

02 August 2022 By Paul Garth

There are numerous issues that legal practices must tackle if they are to futureproof their businesses, writes Paul Garth.

It’s a big question: how do you make sure a law firm or legal department is futureproofed? Of course, there are no guarantees, and in this fast-moving landscape, seismic changes are becoming harder to predict — take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. However, one thing legal teams can concentrate on is making sure they are prepared to attract the very best talent. This is easier to predict and plan for as the drivers and motivators of the younger generations entering the workforce have been studied and modelled.

In Australia, it is estimated that a third of the workforce will be from Generation Z by 2030. These people, born roughly between 1995 and 2003, are the “most technologically supplied, formally educated, globally connected, and socially aware generation in history”, said demographer and social researcher Mark McCrindle, who wrote Understanding Generation Z, which surveyed over 1,100 employed Australians aged 18 to 65, in all states and territories.

This generation, the future of the legal profession, has very distinct desires and motivators influenced by their upbringing and the circumstances of their early experiences of work. For instance, this generation can’t remember a time without technology — they speak a digital language. They’ve come of age at a time of huge global upheaval, including the pandemic and climate change. This has meant what Gen Z wants from their careers is different — with more of a focus on work/life balance and wellbeing, as well as more of a need to work for an organisation with a clear purpose and positive societal impact.

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Attracting new talent is, of course, just half the battle. The rest is about retaining, harnessing and developing this talent. This could be trickier than before, as Gen Z are more willing to move on. According to CareerBuilder, Gen Z’ers already spend less time in a role than Millennials.

So, for law firms, what should be the futureproof priorities?

Wellbeing

Future legal talent has witnessed their parents’ generation suffering from work-related stress, burnout and blurred home/life boundaries. Therefore, this group are keen to not repeat the same mistakes and, as a result, really value robust wellbeing programs that don’t just pay lip service to maintaining mental and physical health, but strive to make an actual difference for employees.

Flexibility and agility

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Writing in Forbes, Bob Contri from Deloitte said: “The 40-hour, nine-to-five workweek is not as appealing to most Gen Z workers, who prefer space to pursue personal and professional fulfilment on their own terms ... many Gen Z’ers are gravitating toward gig work as a flexible way to pay off student loans and focus on other entrepreneurial endeavours and personal passions.” This is certainly a trend we’ve seen at Vario — more and more lawyers, not just those classed as Gen Z, are seeking a more varied and flexible role that gives them more autonomy over their career. For these lawyers, contracting is an increasingly popular option, which also lets them devote time to the “side hustle”.

Recognising and developing different career paths

It’s been long talked about that the traditional path to partner is not the only appealing career goal. In a survey from Major, Lindsey & Africa, “only 23 per cent of respondents expressed interest in making partner in the future. Associates are choosing different paths: 61 per cent want to go in-house or into a government or non-profit organisation, while 7 per cent plan to leave the law. If this trend continues, and firms ignore the changing ambitions of their associates, they may have a mass exodus on their hands.” It’s important, therefore, that firms recognise that not all lawyers want to follow the well-trodden path to partnership and some may want a more flexible role without the focus on billable hours or business development. We’ve also seen more legal professionals looking at roles like paralegal as a more long-term career — and firms can invest and shape these roles so they’re appealing, both for the lawyers and for the firm as a whole.

This is just a brief snapshot of the many different issues firms need to consider when taking steps to futureproof their structure, approach, culture and values. Other very important elements not explored here include a firm’s ESG, with a particular focus on sustainability. Technology is also obviously a massive consideration — Gen Z will be the first generation who will truly see how artificial intelligence and other technological advances impact their role as lawyers and the profession as a whole. They will be the generation to push managed legal services into the mainstream and pioneer new ways to achieve efficiencies for clients.

A final thought. Everyone is an individual, and it’s impossible to plan perfectly for the future and what that will involve. However, looking at the new generation entering the workforce is a helpful guide. As McCrindle said in his report: “Generations are comprised of age, life stage conditions, and experience. It’s not the only way of understanding a community and creating a segment. But it is certainly one of the most useful and powerful ones.”

Paul Garth is an account director for Vario, Pinsent Masons.

What makes a law firm future-ready?
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