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Change is afoot in the legal field: Here’s how you can be ready

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Law Career Leaders
Your future colleagues explain how they’re seeing the profession transform and how you can emerge as a leader.

We’ve got some challenging news for you: What you’re learning today may be out of date in no time at all. You see, the legal world, like the rest of the world, is on a hyper pace of change.

Have no fear. Your soon-to-be colleagues are here to help by predicting the biggest shifts they foresee in the profession and offering suggestions on how you can be ready.

More legal access

I can’t speak to the entire legal field at large, but I think we’re going to start seeing a revolution toward law firms being focused on customer service in the consumer-facing areas of law, such as criminal, personal injury, family law, and estate planning. I think we’re going to start seeing lawyers cost less as law firms start operating like real businesses and embracing technology and outsourced labor. This will drive costs down for consumers, allowing for greater access to justice.

There will also be more and better self-help tools online beyond just creating your will or limited liability company. For instance, my friend in Georgia, Steven Lefkoff, has started Gavel, a company to help small-claims litigants be better prepared when they go into Georgia courts.

Things are going to get better for the real people of the world while the old-fashioned lawyers try to clutch desperately to the old ways of doing things, of being the gatekeepers of all knowledge, of being Very Important People. We’re on the cusp of a revolution that I, for one, am hoping to be at the forefront of.

Dustyn Coontz, founder, Coontz Law, Lansing, Mich.

(Outer) space will grow

I currently teach legal issues at the high school level, and I tell the kids that space issues are going to reshape the legal profession over the next decade, especially with the formation of the U.S. Space Force.

If you’re interested in space, science, jurisdictional matters, international law, criminal law, or military law, prepare for the change now. One lawyer I know who just passed the bar exam is being billed out at $650 an hour advising on space issues. As in this 2019 case, crime in space is literally a new frontier

Elizabeth Ricci, co-founder, Rambana & Ricci, Tallahassee, Fla.

Track AI and automation

Many firms and in-house teams have already started to adopt various technologies, such as artificial intelligence analytics and legal task automation.

The capabilities of those tools and the breadth of those capabilities will continue to expand, changing the landscape of courtrooms and law firms. Seniority will shift from experience to data competency, allowing newer lawyers to compete with more senior attorneys. And the attorneys coming out of law school have learned more about various data tools, which will accelerate even further the adoption of legal databases and analytics.

We’ll also see the real-time legal analytics emerge. Full functionality of this tech is still a few years away, but legal research will be more accurate in less time than ever before. This will give lawyers more time to focus on strategy and client needs.

Also, while the fear for a long time has been that lawyers will be one of the first occupations replaced by AI, what will become clear is that AI in the legal field will be designed to support— and not replace—legal professionals.

AI assistants will help make legal work easier, such as in research and process. This will free lawyers from hours of the more mundane legal work.

And while many lawyers are already using powerful legal analytics tools to focus on the case histories of judges and opposing counsel, we’ll start to see those tools looking within.

This technology will help HR departments recruit the best possible hires for an employer’s specific needs.

You can prepare for these shifts by taking advantage of online legal analytics training, educational resources, and on-campus informational events to become familiar with the tools available today. Also, pursue internship opportunities with firms that use legal analytics.

Karl Harris, CEO, Lex Machina, Menlo Park, Calif.

Explain your value

Technology has been reshaping the legal industry at a rapid pace. In one of my practice areas, estate planning, online forms are commonly available. However, those can be detrimental.

For example, if a will isn’t executed properly, it could be found to be invalid, which won’t happen until the testator has passed.

I think attorneys will need to be mindful going forward that they need to help educate the public about the value they’re adding and why consumers should choose an attorney rather than turning to a form online.

However, no matter how much more technological our practices get, our interaction with our clients is still most important. We need to be able to connect with and relate to clients.

Roberto L. Seda, Attorney at Law, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Seek specialization

One of the biggest changes I predict in the next decade is a decrease in general-practice attorneys and an increase in attorneys who focus on highly specialized practice areas. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated in the way they search for attorneys.

They’re looking for an attorney who’s highly regarded in their field.

For example, consumers will no longer search for a “business attorney” to open a craft brewery. Rather, they’ll search for a “craft brewery attorney” who focuses on that particular industry.

The main advantage general practice attorneys have typically held over attorneys in niche practices was their geographic proximity to a client. With the increased use of remote connections and online court appearances, the geographic advantage of a general practice attorney has also dwindled.

Start thinking about specialized areas of law that will be growing in the near future and develop a niche in these areas early.

Kevin M. Hirzel, managing member, Hirzel Law, Farmington, Mich.

Contracts reimagined

Lawyers, like most white-collar workers, won’t be replaced by technology, but the automation of certain tasks will grow. Document reviews will get easier as software helps identify likely issues and can even flag key issues before a lawyer ever looks at the document.

While such tools exist, they’re not yet commonplace.

Likewise, searches both for case law and background context for a case will get more sophisticated. All of this will reduce the number of rote hours lawyers may spend on a case. This will allow for higher-level “executive functioning,” including engaging clients and thinking through legal strategies that’ll be better performed by humans than machines.

Blockchain and related “self-enforcing contracts” will also grow in popularity.

If they become commonplace, lawyers will need to work more closely with technologists to design contracts expressed as code.

Arbitration may also become easier and more commonplace. Technology, aided by our comfort with video meetings and secure cloud services, may allow for remote arbitration. This will lower the cost, making it a more palatable option

Mark A. Herschberg, author, The Career Toolkit, Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You

PI becomes PL

A huge shift in personal injury law is slowly taking place. Until today, the bread and butter of any PI lawyer has been the auto accident docket. States require cars to be insured, and car wrecks are where the majority of injuries happen.

Enter self-driving cars. Injury lawyers of the future will no longer file general negligence claims or lawsuits.

They’ll have to become product liability lawyers. The claims will likely be against car and guidance systems’ manufacturers.

As the car industry continues to follow Tesla’s lead and adopts self-driving technology, more and more product liability cases will fill court dockets.

Amy S. Lawrence, lawyer, The Lovely Law Firm, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Work adjacent to the law

The increased involvement of smaller law firms in multi-district litigation and class action spaces will lead to more positions in settlement planning and other legal marketing efforts. Be prepared to grow into these specialized roles at smaller firms or at nonlaw firm companies that works in this space.

As a law student, I didn’t know what a 468B trust was or how settlement funds were structured; now I’m an expert in a unique niche that’s growing rapidly.

As small firms compete for MDLs or class action cases, they have to become expert marketers whether they like it or not. Many marketing agencies have a law firm focus, and law firms will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with them to get cases. Smaller firms might not have the resources to engage with one of these agencies, but an internal marketing expert who understands the industry and how to talk to plaintiffs could help them be competitive.

There are also settlement planning companies like ours where attorneys can leverage their knowledge of the law and the implications of settlement on plaintiffs to make sure the financial decisions plaintiffs are making will help them best secure their financial future. And there are litigation funding companies that provide contingent-fee law firms with financial support so they can take on big cases.

It’s worth it to look at companies tangential to law firms, where you can still be involved in the legal industry, use your knowledge of the law to serve others, and feel like you have more options and flexibility in your career. Be open to shift into roles that aren’t what you might think of as the traditional trajectory of a law school grad. Rather than thinking your only options are to become a lawyer at a firm or go in-house as counsel at a company, become familiar with other opportunities in the legal industry.

Sam Dolce, associate, Milestone Consulting, Buffalo, N.Y.

Compensation will shift

I run my own startup law practice, and we help startups legally launch, grow, and protect their ideas. The legal industry is slow to change, but we’ll definitely see more explosive change in the future.

I think one of the largest changes may be the gig economy taking a more prominent foothold in the legal profession. There are many marketplace-type legal platforms already available where potential clients post needs, to which attorneys submit proposals. I also foresee the rise of subscription models and flat fees for legal services. I’ve operated on flat fees since opening my practice.

Matthew Goings, startup attorney, Goings Legal, Atlanta

Better remote skills needed

I expect to see courts and attorneys using technology more and more to conduct business. I think it’s important that law students today prepare to conduct business using video conference. There’s a certain skill to connecting with potential clients over video chat and being able to effectively argue cases before a court over video chat.

I also think that, with the advancements in legal technology, you need to understand and be prepared to be held accountable for your day-to-day activities. Today, your time is easily tracked. In the future, I’m sure there will be new technology that will allow firms to make sure they’re getting the most out of their employees.

Ross Albers, founder, Albers & Associates, Westminster, Md.

Up your web game

Most law firms don’t attract their clients through their websites. They primarily acquire clients through relationships with insurance companies and word of mouth. Because of this, a lot of law firms don’t have great websites.

Most don’t see the need.

I predict, however, that this will change. As Gen Zers age, there will be an increasing need for strong copy and helpful websites. The digital natives of this generation won’t trust a law firm that doesn’t have a strong digital presence.

Even if they learn about a firm by word of mouth, these consumers will immediately look the firm up and decide for themselves if they want to hire them.

This means law firms will need to start investing more money into SEO and web design.

Alison Pearson, director of human resources, Hal Waldman and Associates, Pittsburgh

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.