Law Firm Careers: New Jobs, New Criteria, New Measurement

Originally published for Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute on February 10, 2015

The core of any law firm is its people. That has been so since law firms were first formed. It will always be so.

What will change is the makeup of that core: the talent model, the skills and aptitudes required for success, and the performance measurements. Technology, design, and the market place are driving firms toward more efficient ways of delivering service. As they progress to greater efficiency, law firms will establish new jobs and careers for their people, emphasize new criteria in selecting their people, and adopt new measurements and incentives for their people.

Here are some thoughts about these three key issues:

Talent Model

It is simply no longer sustainable for the complex and data driven work of law firms to be done solely, or even predominantly, by licensed lawyers. It is too expensive; it is not necessary, and it is not even the best way to do the work. Instead, the work will be done by a combination of licensed lawyers, other professionals, technology, and collaboration with third parties to whom portions of the work with be delegated.

Law firms will create new positions organized around doing work more efficiently: data analysis, other fact gathering, document drafting, process design, technology application, and project management are examples. These positions will not directly be engaged in the “practice of law.” A law degree will be helpful, but it will not be necessary.

A smaller percentage of the professional workforce will be licensed lawyers, as the new positions do more of the work. And there will more than one career path for lawyers: the traditional track to partner will remain, but it will be joined by other paths with different characteristics.

A key element of this transition will be defining the new positions in an appropriate way. Traditionally, law firms label any role other than lawyer in the pejorative: “non-lawyer” roles. In medicine, nurses and other medical personnel are not called “non-doctors.” Law firms will find their way—conceptually and in regard to position titles—and will recognize that the new “legal service personnel” are to be respected, valuable members of the “core” that will comprise the law firm of the 21st Century.

Selection Criteria

As legal personnel roles emerge, so will the criteria that law firms use to choose whom to hire.

The base-line requirements will remain the same: law firms will want the best and the brightest. The considerations that caused law firms to recruit from the top law schools and prefer those candidates with the best grades, will still apply. Because to do the sophisticated and complicated work that law firms do, will still require highly intelligent, well-educated, and hardworking people.

Going forward, additional considerations will be given great weight in hiring decisions. While each new job will have its own prerequisites based on its duties, firms will look for the following characteristics in all personnel:

Facility with technology: Technology is mission critical. Every member of the team must be able not only to embrace current technology, but to envision new ways to incorporate it and to adapt to new applications as they emerge.

Design aptitude: We are in the early stage of genuine redesign of how legal service is delivered. Law firms will be looking for people who can understand and help develop new ways of serving clients.

Business acumen: Legal service will become ever more integrated into the business decisions of clients. The idea of “client focus” will go from a marketing slogan to a reality. This will require a greater understanding of clients’ business objectives by all personnel.

Teamwork: Because professionals will be more integrated with technology, diverse positions, and third parties, there will be a greater premium on the ability to work in complex teams.

Ability to inspire confidence: As firms become comfortable with entrusting important elements of client service to professionals with backgrounds that are different from the traditional law school training and experience, it will become more important for candidates to show they can inspire the confidence of co-workers and clients.

Adaptability: In this time of rapid system and model change, law firms will be looking for people who are comfortable with and adept at adapting as everything around them evolves.

Measurements and Incentives

The measurements and incentives will also change.

For better or worse (mainly worse) law firms have measured the performance of lawyers by the number of billable hours they logged and thereby created incentives for them to log as many as possible. These measures and incentives won’t work in the world ahead.

For one thing, the work of many personnel will not correlate directly to client service, nor to revenue in the way that billable hours do. The technologists and project managers, for example, will be driving client service in a different way.

More fundamental, as firms push for more efficiency, they will be looking for ways to get work done better but with fewer resources spent getting it done. The mantra will be better, faster, and cheaper. Hard work will matter, to be sure. But more important will be how much each person achieves, and how much value to the client and how much value to the firm is added. “Productivity” will return to its natural meaning, i.e., what has been produced, instead of how many hours one spent in the name of producing something.

Law firms will come up with new measures of productivity, which will include concepts of efficiency as well as the value of the output generated. Adapting to these new measures won’t be nearly as difficult for the new personnel as it will be for the incumbents.

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