Shifting Contours of Being a Legal Professional
Hybrid Skillsets and Non-Traditional Jobs Roles
Competencies expected of legal professionals are being recast on account of technological innovation, changing demographics, varying working styles and attitudes towards work. Add to that, increasing competition from non-law professionals who can provide holistic, accessible and affordable legal advice.
Legal professionals will not be able to rely solely on their formal legal training and legal work experience, to dispense their professional roles effectively.
This article reflects on potential hybrid skillsets and emergence of non-traditional job roles in the legal domain, to create awareness, which is the key to position oneself for the changes impacting the practice and business of law.
High Technology and Sea Change (for a tradition bound profession)
The Tech Law Fest 2018 (the Fest) by the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) in April 2018 was eye opening as it was a peek into the vectors of change and the changes transforming the legal services sector. There were discussions on re-inventing the law firm, legal processes, as well as modes of engagement with clients both internal and external. Innovative software demonstrations and entertaining pitches were also made by multi-disciplinary teams of domain experts from computer science, law, finance, risk and other business functions. The offerings targeted at law firms and their clients included an eclectic tasting menu of technological innovations aimed at improving efficiency and lowering cost and risk. Several offerings were infused with a strong dose of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Almost all demonstrated technology partnering with humans, augmenting rather than competing with human cognitive capabilities.
From a legal professional’s standpoint, the very fact that this event was organised was significant. Not only was it a smorgasbord of activities atypical of events organised by legal professional bodies like the SAL, the Fest was a harbinger of the changing dynamic impacting several aspects of legal service delivery.
Further, what was also noteworthy was the diversity of professionals present: data scientists, computer scientists, business leaders alongside a wide array of legal professionals including lawyers, in-house counsel, government counsel, legal publishers, academics, as well as law firm functional specialists hailing from knowledge management, risk management and practice management. This inter-professional congregation could perhaps be a sign of the times, a peek into the future of how legal services delivery will involve diverse professionals working, collaborating as part of multi-disciplinary teams, offering holistic solutions to clients.
It is not uncommon to see cross-disciplinary collaboration in legal solutions delivery. Teams of lawyers and associate legal professionals such as paralegals and legal secretaries working alongside experts from non-law domains such as digital forensics, accounting and finance professionals on client matters is not unusual but not widespread usually restricted to electronic discovery and evidence gathering and that too in high stakes contentious matters. In-house counsel also work in multi-disciplinary settings. However, their job scope is fairly clear cut as a legal domain specialist in a business entity. This is changing nevertheless. In-house counsel work parameters are being blurred and redrawn. Availability of technological solutions for carrying out what is considered “grunt” work, opens up news way of organising work, giving rise to non-traditional methods being borrowed and adapted to in-house work, such as project management, process improvement, human resource management and data analytics.
AI based applications by their very nature require inputs from a variety of experts which may prompt redrawing of the boundaries between legal work and everything else.12018 AI predictions 8 insights to shape business strategy, rep. (PwC, 2018). Online https://www.pwc.com/us/en/advisory-services/assets/ai-predictions-2018-report.pdf New ways of working together towards common objectives will be required, necessitating breaking down of silos.
New ways of re-organising staff will herald substantial changes in employment and hiring practices of law firms and in-house legal departments, something which is yet to be seen, at least based on the job roles being advertised in Singapore. What does all this mean for lawyers? Perhaps, a re-calibration of individual capabilities which can be broadly split into Skills, Competencies and Mindsets and evolution in traditional job roles of legal professionals.
Skills, Competencies and Mind-sets for Lawyers Will Not be the Same
Changing demands of the job will mean that legal professionals looking for professional advancement within the legal sector will have to demonstrate skills, competencies and mind-sets not traditionally associated with legal professionals.
The LIFTED competency framework created by the SAL is a possible starting point to explore emerging job roles, skills, competencies for lawyers, legal counsel and associate legal professionals. Awareness of evolving competencies will be critical to continue to remain employable
Massive change to the business of law, the practice of law and thereby employability of legal professionals is on the cards, or at least that is promise of AI powered applications tailored for legal service providers. Non-standard legal work will be harder to automate, but no one dares say it will not happen.
Legal process automation adoption in Singapore’s legal sector is at present perhaps incremental, uneven and not top priority for the majority of law firms. It remains to be seen as to whether law firms and their clients are on the same page when it comes to technological adoption in law firms. AI adoption is nowhere as sweeping and disruptive in the legal sector as it appears to be in manufacturing and perhaps other service industries. But the possibility of that happening is high, given increasing client pressures and fervent endeavours by the Singapore Government for facilitating adoption by businesses of AI to recast, retool and re-engineer business processes to ensure Singapore’s remains competitive as a services hub.2 The Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP) by the SAL and the SmartLaw Certification scheme by Law Society of Singapore are just two examples, directly targeted at law firms in Singapore, aimed at enhancing utilization and integration of innovative technological solutions to aid intrinsic and client facing work processes of law firms.
In the legal services sector, the larger law firms but perhaps more increasingly their corporate clients are at various stages of using AI to simplify and automate standardised legal work. Rapid adoption of AI applications in the finance sector, within government agencies and in other quarters of the economy which support economic growth means legal service providers must also play ball.
Across the board, new ways of work are emerging, often displacing traditional ways of working. Several example, can be cited, of roles where human workers have been or can be entirely replaced with robots or automated software in the manufacturing sector and a variety of service industries. However, the legal sector has very few such examples. This may seem odd because routine legal work processes can be automated and increasingly AI application tailored to the legal market are available at relatively reasonable costs.
For now, many legal AI applications that are available are complementary rather than replacing human agents. Such applications require “training” and “supervision” by human hands and minds. There is a lack of data on the extent to which law firms and in-house departments based in Singapore have implemented such ways of workin. Such data would be highly relevant for legal training providers so that they may determine how legal education should cater to skilling would-be legal professionals to work with AI and other forms of technology permeating the legal services sector.
Based on anecdotal accounts of conversations the author has had with lawyers, legal technology vendors and legal counsel in the past few months, many legal employers see augmented ways of working catching on. Openness of employers and employees to embrace the productive unconventional and let go of the unproductive conventional will mediate the adoption of technology augmented processes in law firms and beyond. Beyond an openness to technology adoption, being skilled to work alongside emergent technology will be also be critical.
Performing the role of a human operator of AI application will call for capabilities not traditionally associated with a legally trained professional. For instance, having a high degree of technological affinity, a flexible notion of one’s professional identity and comfort with ambiguity will be critical when working alongside AI applications deployed to automate standardised work.
Hybridised Job Roles
It is not just the individual capabilities expected of legal professionals which will change, but also the job roles in which legal professionals are typically employed. Hybridization, defined by multiple skillsets rolled into one – legal, technological and business – will be increasingly be at the heart of what one may label as non-traditional job roles. Lawyers may need to adapt to working in hybridised roles when law firms increasingly automate non-routine tasks and workflows.
While it is impossible to predict the specific requirements of such non-traditional job roles, the Report of the Emerging Legal Work Group (NALPReport) represents a comprehensive effort to identify, with specificity, the types of job roles that are — or soon will be — available for legal professionals in traditional and non-traditional legal contexts.3Report of the Emerging Legal Jobs Work Group, rep. (The National Association for Law Placement, 2015) Online: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/litigation/materials/2016_joint_cle/1_2015EmergingLegalJobsFinalReport.authcheckdam.pdf The NALP Report presents the results of a comprehensive study of the job market for lawyers, focusing on non-traditional and emerging roles. A number of these roles have come about on the back of technological advancements and legal process re-engineering by law firms and non-law firm employers who hire legal professionals. The demand for Knowledge Engineers, Legal Project Manager, Legal Process analysts working alongside lawyers was not something most lawyers would have imagined to be a reality a decade ago. Diffusion of technological innovation into the law firm is a key driver for such roles. Such diffusion also impacts the domain expert role of lawyers.
Legal Job Roles Will Evolve: From Domain Experts to Functional Specialists
When one thinks of a typical law firm in Singapore the list of domain experts employed are overwhelmingly lawyers and associate legal professionals such as paralegals and legal secretaries. That is not to say the law firms in Singapore do not employ domain experts from non-legal professionals such as engineers, medical practitioners, economists and accountants, but the occurrence of non-domain experts working in law firms are rare and often dictated largely by the dominant practice areas for a law firm.
Forward thinking law firms are likely to consider hiring a diversity of domain experts to remain competitive not only over other law firms but also entities which are perceived to be encroaching into the domain of legal advisory work. The Big4 professional service companies and emerging legal technology start-ups offering commoditized legal products are perhaps an immediate and emergent competition for law firms engaged in transactional work.4 Kang, John & Anna Zhang. “Law Firms Uneasy as the Big Four Make Their Big Push in Asia”, (3 August 2018), online: law.com https://www.law.com/international/2018/08/03/law-firms-uneasy-as-the-big-four-make-their-big-push-in-asia/?slreturn=20180721041537
However, just hiring experts from technical domains may not be the most optimum strategy for a law firm to remain competitive and innovative. For instance, hiring an AI expert to help a law firm in implementing AI solutions to predict outcomes of litigation may not go as far getting a generic AI app working for and trained by a human litigation lawyer towards the same goal. For such an augmentation to succeed, the human lawyer in question will be expected to have the mind set and skillset to work with the AI. This underscores the importance of lawyers having a high level of technological affinity, but not necessarily coding or programming ability. Developing functional specialisms will probably make more sense for a law firm to lay the foundation for AI augmenting humans in key work processes.
Lawyers in law firms as well as in house counsel along with their respective hiring managers will benefit immensely by keeping abreast of nuances surrounding technological applications and their impact on legal employers and employment of legal processionals. Identifying the constants will be critical in preparing for the unforeseen future of work.
At the end of the day, client demands and competition from within and outside the legal sector will mediate the pace and scope of change for legal professionals. The availability and increasing attractiveness of technological solutions to automate standardised legal work and transform complex legal work, and incumbents taking up legal job roles will have to adapt to new ways of working, collaborating and interacting across functions, working with domain specialists from hi-technology, the sciences and perhaps even social sciences. Such interactions will increasingly feature human-technology interactions going beyond a legal associate tethered to their desk doing legal research, crafting documents and managing communications with clients. What will not change is that the humans will be required to usher in and manage change. While standardised legal work requiring armies of junior lawyers, paralegals and temp staff may increasingly be done by lean teams of paralegals assisted by machine learning powered technology, non-routine legal work being performed by robo-advisors and AI software is perhaps some way away, at least in Singapore’s context. But then, given the pace of change there is always merit in being future ready, even if such a future seems unlikely.
|↑1||2018 AI predictions 8 insights to shape business strategy, rep. (PwC, 2018). Online https://www.pwc.com/us/en/advisory-services/assets/ai-predictions-2018-report.pdf|
|↑2||The Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP) by the SAL and the SmartLaw Certification scheme by Law Society of Singapore are just two examples, directly targeted at law firms in Singapore, aimed at enhancing utilization and integration of innovative technological solutions to aid intrinsic and client facing work processes of law firms.|
|↑3||Report of the Emerging Legal Jobs Work Group, rep. (The National Association for Law Placement, 2015) Online: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/litigation/materials/2016_joint_cle/1_2015EmergingLegalJobsFinalReport.authcheckdam.pdf|
|↑4||Kang, John & Anna Zhang. “Law Firms Uneasy as the Big Four Make Their Big Push in Asia”, (3 August 2018), online: law.com https://www.law.com/international/2018/08/03/law-firms-uneasy-as-the-big-four-make-their-big-push-in-asia/?slreturn=20180721041537|