Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Picking up the New Law gauntlet – CC’s City head calls for a new approach to training the lawyers of the future

New entrants to the legal profession will be competing head on against Kim, the virtual assistant from Riverview Law, and Ross, IBM Watson’s ‘super-intelligent’ attorney, in delivering services to clients. Ross, unlike most of us, has the ability to research every resource of legal knowledge in seconds, and, even more impressive to the older ones among us, remember it.

There’s no doubt that clients will always value negotiating skills, judgement, ethical standards and reassurance from their lawyers but if the apprentice style of learning at the expert’s knee is going to be overtaken by Kim and Ross, how will the profession generate the experienced advisers that clients seek to consult?

Clients seek good value for money from their law firms and those expectations change over time. In the past, certain tasks were seen as good value for money. Now, as tasks become more familiar, technology enables a more efficient delivery.

What is more, speed of communication increases expectations of 24/7 availability and delivery by lawyers. Lawyers have to respond swiftly and in the most efficient way, which increasingly involves co-ordinating delivery from the legal team, as well as external and internal specialist providers such as disaggregators and technology applications. Young lawyers are under a lot of pressure to deliver both innovative legal and process solutions.

So what can law firms offer to their junior lawyers to achieve the goal of meeting their clients’ immediate expectations in the most efficient way while also training those lawyers in the skills they will require in the future to become trusted advisers?

First and foremost, expectations need to be made clear and law firms needs to champion visible role models. This particularly is an issue exacerbated by technology. Current partners are rarely best placed to take advantage of, let alone promote, agile working practices. It is trite but true that work is something you do, not somewhere you go, and younger lawyers need to see their elders embrace the possibilities offered by new technology.

At Clifford Chance (CC), whenever we ask our people what they like most about working in the firm, they tell us the quality of the work, the quality of the clients, and the brand and reputation of the firm. But most of all they love the team culture. Having the best and most engaging people is key.

So how do you make sure that you can recruit and retain the best? You need to take pay off the table. Few motivated professionals derive real satisfaction from their pay cheque, but they can derive enormous dissatisfaction if they perceive they are being underpaid for the effort they are putting in.

You need to provide exceptional facilities: when I joined the profession having a swimming pool, squash court, gym etc was perceived as extraordinary but then, frankly, so would 24/7 document production and reading e-mails in bed. Ambitious professionals need to know they are getting the best training. Not just improving their legal skills but their broader business skills. This commercial nous helps to reassure clients that they have exceptional people advising them with a deep understanding of the issues that they face.

There needs to be absolute clarity about how the young professional is progressing in their career. Everyone needs at least an annual appraisal and ad-hoc feedback on performance. This also requires some honesty where it becomes apparent that a lawyer is not progressing as hoped. Most people do not join an organisation with an anticipation that they will work there forever but rather that they will acquire valuable and transferable skills that will set them up well for the long term. That long term is not necessarily in the place that you train.

Law firms’ whole environment needs to be accepting. Diversity is not just a human right, it’s a business imperative. It’s important that people are able to be themselves at work so that they can apply all their energies to doing their job to the best of their ability rather than dissembling about who or what they are. This is also one of the benefits of extensive pro bono and CSR programmes. Although some firms seem to think that pro bono is something done for political acceptability, that overlooks that most lawyers need (yes, I do mean need) to make a positive impact on the communities around them.

Finally, we try to give our teams the tools to be resilient, including helping them understand time management and self-organisation, sleeping, exercise and nutrition. We even provide mindfulness/meditation training. While the image of a room full of CC lawyers learning to chant may be funny, it’s important to remember that, while our clients’ business is very serious, it doesn’t mean that we have to be so all the time. I am sure Kim and Ross don’t have souls.

David Bickerton is London managing partner at Clifford Chance.