This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Law Practice

From the rise of artificial intelligence to concierge-level support of clients, the legal industry is changing, and changing fast.

Ira Rushing

Article by Ira Rushing Featured Author


No one anticipates robots taking over our jobs or providing strategic legal advice any time soon (although this author could respect any machine that could efficiently execute Rule Against Perpetuities code). Yet, with advancements in legal innovation and technology, lawyers who are more connected with each other via Facebook than at happy hour have a unique skill set that can be leveraged into some serious business prospects.

In the past, lawyers were able to remain guarded as the sole-sources of legal knowledge and services. Clients received information and resources from “their lawyers.” The system guaranteed a monopoly, and the main source of competition remained centered within various legal sectors. But long gone are the days where a firm’s high-dollar clients will accept a bill for some arbitrary amount of hours worked on a case. Firms are increasingly in competition with their clients’ own legal departments. As companies look more to the bottom line, legal spending has been highlighted as a key area for cutting waste.

As clients focus on research and development to increase efficiency and decrease legal budgets, the practice of law is increasingly more reliant on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and various other automation methods. Technology is changing the traditional ways of practicing at increasing rates. It is a buyers’ market for legal services these days, and clients are demanding more cost-effective yet still robust and “full-service” legal services. This has led to new competition and innovation as folks hustle to be more efficient while also struggling to remain profitable.

Those consumers with relatively simple and routine legal needs now have many options at a fraction of the traditional price of hiring a lawyer, accessible at their fingertips 24-hours a day. Not only are lawyers competing with their clients’ in-house lawyers, they’re competing with e-service providers and automated systems designed to deliver a product cheaply, effectively, and quickly, rather than cater to a customer’s every need. Still, there is no substitute for good judgment and creativity, now needed to adapt to and implement these innovations, as well as to assure that quality remains on the forefront of legal services.

This isn’t to say that customer service will suffer as the legal industry adopts new technology. In fact, excellent client service is not just a nice idea anymore — it is a necessity. Interestingly, work product and/or poor results are not cited as the predominant reasons clients search for new counsel. More clients leave a firm because of service issues. Past culture has tended to focus on billings, originations, and results, but rarely on service. That makes sense when considering how attorneys have typically been evaluated for salary and bonuses.

Now, however, the name of the game is technological and process innovation. That’s where young lawyers have unique skills that are changing the industry every day. While obviously working hard to drive profit, many of these processes are born out of a nod towards customer service.

A big part of this goes all the way back to J. Edwards Deming in the 1950s. While largely ignored by American businesses at the time, Deming singlehandedly transformed Japanese business. By teaching companies to transform “Made in Japan” from meaning cheap junk into meaning high-quality products, he finally got American companies to adopt his methods in the 1980s. He found that you could only achieve quality by measuring it. Enter the Six Sigma method, first introduced at Motorola and popularized by General Electric. This method identifies waste, inefficiency and error, and corrects the deficiencies by implementing workflows and processes. Implementing these project management practices at a law firm is the most meaningful, measurable way to drive profit without sacrificing high-quality customer service.

With the rise in popularity of legal tech startups like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, there is a desire for subscription pricing and fast, user-friendly service. Law firms that can provide these things in addition to top-notch legal expertise have a wonderful competitive advantage. These firms are proof that affordability is not limited to online templates and they are establishing a foothold as industry leaders. These firms are putting a spin on traditional methods of process improvement and project management and applying them to the legal industry for the first time. At last, legal project management (LPM) is taking flight.

The fact that some lawyers are so reluctant to play ball in this project management arena should scream OPPORTUNITY to younger lawyers. In the age where computers are virtually human appendages, young attorneys are perfectly positioned to leverage their knowledge into positions traditionally reserved for the handful of “ 10-pound-brains” graduating at the top of every law school class. As law firms begin investing heavily in tech, they are experiencing tremendous freedom from time and cost constraints usually associated with higher customer service output. The “Six Sigma” and “Lean” methods popularized in manufacturing and production industries are starting to catch on in the legal realm, and young folks already have many of the tools necessary to “get it.”

Yet, even with its meteoric rise among the Am Law 100 firms, LPM still struggles to gain traction with most individual lawyers. Indeed, there is a huge gap between lawyer mindset and the logic of implementing project management principles. These principles include things like identifying stakeholders, determining client objectives, defining scope, institution of a formal scope change process, establishment of a communications plan — when who will talk to whom about what, recording time by task codes, building a budget by task code, monitoring actual progress against budget, creation of a work breakdown structure including dependencies, identifying risks to success to outline remedial actions, and performing after-matter reviews. It’s a lot. No wonder people don’t want to do these things — who would? You. You would. For a paycheck in a world where paychecks are hard to come by.

So what can law students and recent grads do to position themselves in this changing industry? Try a basic coding class. Read LPM blogs. Take at least an entry-level course in project management. Gone are the days where students go to law school because they’re bad at math. Young and future lawyers will need to love math and technology, have leadership skills and emotional intelligence, and will need to be creative, sober about risks, and thrive under pressure. Leverage the fact that you know how to do all of these things. It is very likely that any lawyer entering the industry right now has at least a basic understanding of technology and innovation that is light years ahead of the senior attorneys in most firms.

More than anything, law schools and law firms need to be realistic about the type of candidates they’re looking for. Law is no longer a haven for people who want to read and write all day. These skills are certainly still important, but there is also a new frontier of legal budgeting and data analysis. Hiring will need to adjust to accommodate this wider range of skill sets, and firms will need to provide a greater variety of training. Showing up with this knowledge already in your toolbox makes you much more valuable than you would think.

A good part of project management implementation in law firms, especially where a program is already lacking, is like teaching your grandmother how to use her iPhone. You’re Mark Zuckerberg, the attorneys in the firm are Congress, and they want to know how Facebook works. Most younger folks have been thinking this way all of their lives. As firms start to key in on how valuable your experience in this realm truly is, it’s time to capitalize on that. This ain’t your daddy’s legal industry anymore.