The legal industry today - and its future

Two experts on the issues large commercial law firms are currently facing and on what lies ahead for them
Commercial awareness

The UK's business and finance institutions continue to grapple with the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis. Meanwhile, the UK's legal profession is currently facing some major upheavals. Large commercial law firms sit at the intersection of these two worlds, so are facing a unique set of problems and opportunities.

Here, with the help of two experts, we outline the most important issues for them today and provide some predictions for the future - knowing about these will help you make more informed applications and plan your career.

Christopher Stoakes is Director of Legal Learning Projects at Hogan Lovells where he focuses on research and training. He's also the author of many books about the legal profession and related subjects, including All You Need To Know About The City and All You Need to Know About Commercial Awareness.

Richard Susskind is an author, speaker, and independent adviser to major professional firms and governments on the future of professional services, in particular the way in which technology is changing the work of lawyers. He has written and edited numerous books, including The Future of Law, The End of Lawyers?, and, most recently, Tomorrow's Lawyers.

Three big issues for large commercial law firms

The economy

Corporates and financial institutions are still suffering from the effects of the economic downturn, meaning that some areas of commercial legal work are very quiet.

In addition, says Christopher, increased regulation means that "even getting the law right is increasingly hard."

However, there's still plenty of growth in emerging markets, so many large commercial law firms are opening new offices abroad.

Billing pressure from clients

Many clients are putting huge pressure on their law firms over the size of their bills and how much they're getting for their money - what Richard calls the "more for less challenge", which is leading some firms to outsource routine legal work to locations where costs are lower.

Clients are also objecting to being charged per hour of lawyer time which, they argue, acts as a disincentive to efficiency.

Liberalisation of the legal marketplace

The passing of the Legal Services Act 2007 allowed non-lawyers to take a stake in English law firms for the first time as partners or investors. A law firm must first become an "alternative business structure" (ABS).

Many large commercial law firms are thought to be contemplating doing so to get external investment or non-legal experts on their management team. The Act also means they could face increased competition from non-legal organisations, like the Big Four accounting firms.

And the future?

Here are our experts' predictions...

Impact of technology

Richard is convinced that technology will have a massive effect on law firms in the coming years. Instead of "drafting a document for a particular client", you might yourself "preparing a system that can draft documents for many different clients".

Other developments he highlights, some of which are already in evidence, include computerised legal project management, the analysis of big data for legal purposes, and online legal advice and dispute resolution, perhaps even provided by computers autonomously.

Young lawyers, thinks Richard, will be at an advantage. "Using technology is second nature to everyone under 30, which means those coming into the profession will have a vital skillset they can teach older lawyers. And that means you'll be able to contribute and shape the next generation of legal services in a way that simply wasn't possible in the past."

Closer relationships with clients

Christopher predicts that, much as auditors do currently, "lawyers will spend more time at clients' offices. They'll have much closer relationships with them and will be an integral part of their management team."

Richard agrees and explains why. Clients are now demanding that their lawyers help them manage potential legal risks rather than firefight. "You'll be helping clients avoid pitfalls and identify problems before they've arisen, rather than sitting at your desk waiting for the problems to come to you."

Different skills needed

The changing nature of legal work, thinks Richard, means that opportunities will arise for existing lawyers to use more of their skills, and that law will provide opportunities for a wider range of individuals.

"Many law firms," he says, "have outstanding technicians who are very knowledgeable and diligent, but a lot of the technical expertise they have will be standardised and systematised."

"So the analytical, logical, hardworking and reflective people who traditionally go into law will be needed less than more creative, strategic, imaginative and empathetic individuals."

More flexible working lives

Christopher and Richard agree that technological progress will make it ever easier for lawyers to work from home or on the move. And Richard adds that improved management of legal work should make the working lives of commercial lawyers more manageable.

"Better project management and process analysis mean that we can be more efficient," he says, "which will help prevent lawyers having to stay in the office 24 hours a day."