The T-Shaped Lawyer

Maximising resources, increasing revenue, elevating the firm’s presence: these are constant challenges law firms face today. While the legal industry has traditionally been snail paced in keeping up with the tech adoption curve, such challenges have put undue pressure on firms to follow in the footsteps of tech savvier organisations, encouraging the implementation of new technology and programmes. The result? An increasingly digital and tech-driven environment, which has allowed for a new type of lawyer to rise: the T-shaped lawyer.

The T-shaped lawyer

Combining deep legal knowledge and skills with the ability to collaborate effectively across multiple disciplines, the lawyer of the new age typically boasts:

  • Deep knowledge of legal issues, risks, and changes affecting the firm and industry
  • Business knowledge and skills such as service delivery, project management, financial acumen
  • Ability to combine legal and business knowledge to understand, prioritise and provide solutions to problems
  • Stellar communication skills
  • Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and other soft skills

That the rise of the modern T-shaped lawyer neatly coincides with an increasingly millennial workforce is no accident. There has been much discourse on the disruption the millennial generation has brought to every industry as they make their way through the ranks of an organisation. In law firms, the millennial lawyer today demands very different things from the partners of the old days—rather than prestige and compensation, they prioritise mastery of skills, achieving work-life balance, as well as constant upskilling and exposure to new aspects of legal work. Part of that hunger for new experiences include improving the way legal work is done at the firm, and key to this new culture of innovation is legal technology.

This mindset shift then begs the question: how can we best prepare students for the future of the legal practice? The answer lies far from training them to use the technology available; the current generation of students are likely able to grasp its usage intuitively. Neither is it to provide them with more knowledge that can be easily found with a little bit of resourcefulness.

“I often say that the only career decision you need to make as a lawyer and only strategy decision you need to make if you’re in the commercial world is, do you want to compete with machines or build the machines? Surely our generation will redefine the way that law is practiced.”

– Richard Susskind

Indeed, universities such as Stanford Law School and Suffolk University in Boston are taking on the challenge to equip students with the skills necessary to make them well-rounded lawyers, with multidisciplinary curriculum designed to integrate legal studies with methodology from other fields such as computer science, data analytics, and process management. These courses don’t just focus on how technology effectively eliminates routine and tedious tasks like issuing contracts or legislation research, but are also beginning to encourage anyone with an interest in legal technology to switch their lens around from using to building said technology. For instance, CodeX, the Stanford Centre for Legal Informatics, aims to shed light on initiatives led by data scientists, designers, change-minded grad students, and entrepreneurs that have the potential to transform the way lawyers work.

Here in Asia, many in the legal community following the developments of legal technology and innovation believe that the profession is far behind the US or the UK. Recently, Thomson Reuters held a roundtable on the state of legal education in Hong Kong with industry experts, led by David Curle, director of the technology and innovation platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute. The consensus among the attendees was that while there definitely is burgeoning interest in adapting legal education to keep up with legal innovation, more should be done to develop a curriculum that reflects it.

Hong Kong’s universities are beginning to approach legal education as a business rather than a profession. This is an important shift when we take into consideration that the role of schools today is not just to educate but more importantly to prepare students for the workforce. During the roundtable panel discussion, Telstra Supervising Counsel and one of the founders of the Hong Kong chapter of CLOC (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) Lauren Ellison provided the corporate perspective in this mindset shift across law schools, saying that the modern lawyer cannot be one that is just well-versed with the law. Instead, they should have the ability to be a project manager, a change manager, and a leader who understands technology and strategy.

That said, the responsibility to build the modern lawyer of the future does not rest solely on schools but should lie equally on all key players in the legal ecosystem. After all, producing the most tech savvy lawyers would be inconsequential if the traditionally rigid judicial system fails to modernise. Recognising this, Chinese courts have taken large steps toward automating court processes, panellist Prof. Geraint Howells, Dean of the Law School at City University of Hong Kong pointed out, unlike their more traditional counterparts in the US and UK. This is expected to spur modernisation and encourage innovation in other areas.

The takeaway for law firms then is to start to play their part today in ensuring that the correct mindset and infrastructure are in place for when these students transition into the workforce. Traditional players need to recognise the necessity of forward thinking, panellist Titus Rahiri, founder and director of Hong Kong-based alternative legal services provider KorumLegal noted, especially since the growth of his ALSP outfit stemmed directly from the frustration with the lack of innovation among traditional players in the Hong Kong market. When we compare the Hong Kong with other regions making great strides in advancing the industry such as Australia and Singapore, the latter which is investing government money into legal innovation, it’s clear there is a growing gap that cannot be left unchecked.

What’s more, Rahiri emphasised that the millennial, or further in the future, the Gen Z lawyer, typically eschew the traditional path. They prefer firms that are ahead of the times, that embrace change as they strive to better predict and meet demands of clients and employees. So even as firms look to hire “double threat” employees who come equipped with technological skills and appropriate legal knowledge, they should also consider supplementing current processes with workflows and technology that makes legal work more intuitive for employees.

Finally, investing in legal technology also brings other benefits aside from attracting talent. It lessens redundant tasks, boosts productivity, promotes standardisation and reduces risk. Legal technology helps employees—both with and without legal backgrounds—to collaborate in pursuit of a common goal. Of course, it’s not enough to just invest in new technology, firms should also be on the ball with providing appropriate onboarding training in the implementation plan. This way, firms can better accommodate both existing and oncoming partners, as well as incoming graduates in providing each with a way to work that they are comfortable with.