The lawyer of the future has already arrived

And legal education is keeping pace

By David Cohen

On Wednesday January 23rd, 2019


I recently spent an evening at a packed lecture hall in downtown Toronto. A group of panelists was speaking about the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), a program that teaches law students across North America how to become “T-Shaped” lawyers. This new class of legal professional augments the deep legal knowledge they acquire through a traditional legal education (the vertical part of the T) with a broad understanding of other business essentials, like project management, process improvement, data analytics and technology (the horizontal part).

The program involves two components. First, students take part in a boot camp where they learn from leading thinkers in these disciplines. And second, they complete a 10-week internship at a law firm, legal technology company, in-house legal department or alternative legal provider.

On that evening in Toronto, I was part of the panel as an employer who had worked with IFLP interns this past summer. I couldn’t help but reflect on what students were taught when I graduated from law school 15 years ago. That, of course, was before the 2008 financial crisis, before anyone was using the term “AFAs” (alternative fee arrangements) — and before legal-market participants (both on the buy and sell side) were critically thinking about how they could use technology and improved processes to lower the cost of legal services.

Over the past decade, a great deal has changed. Many legal-technology solutions have been and continue to be developed. But something else — perhaps something profound — has shifted: the types of jobs that law-school graduates can pursue are also in a state of flux. Below are a few examples of these new roles:

1. In-house legal operations professionals. Organizations have started to optimize their in-house legal departments with legal operations professionals. They are allies of the general counsel, who help with, among other things, applying legal technology and data analytics, improving legal processes and structuring AFAs with outside counsel. A couple of years ago, a group of these professionals founded the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (or “CLOC” for short). This group has 1,900 members and a quickly growing Canadian chapter.

2. Non-traditional law-firm roles. Clients now ask law firms to demonstrate innovation in how they design and deliver legal solutions. As a result, firms are creating teams dedicated to legal pricing, project management, technology and data analytics.

3. T-Shaped lawyers. As one of these lawyers myself, I can explain this role with first-hand experience. We spend most of our time talking to clients about their pain points — and how we can help solve them using people, processes and technology. When we’re not talking to clients, we are with associates, gathering feedback from them about how we can work more efficiently. We brainstorm potential legal solutions and technology applications that we can roll out to clients. Associates take an active role in the design and implementation of the solutions. Often, they serve as projects leads, but, at the very least, they act as pilot participants during the testing phase before solutions are implemented with our clients.

4. Legal-tech entrepreneurs. Some tech-minded and entrepreneurial lawyer have abandoned tradition legal practice entirely and, instead, decided to focus their attention on developing legal-technology applications. A number of successful companies — like Kira Systems, Ross Intelligence, Blue J Legal, and Diligen — were founded by Canadians.

The profession now has job openings in all of these categories. And, as a result, legal education has started to change. Courses on legal technology are already being offered at Osgoode Hall and the University of Toronto. Ryerson University’s proposed law school will feature an innovative curriculum that incorporates legal technology: students will participate in mandatory boot camps with topics that include technology, innovation and coding. This past year, Osgoode became the first Canadian law school to have its students participate in IFLP. (Five students took part in the program in 2018.)

Different market players are engaging with one another to shape how legal services will be delivered in the future. And it’s exciting that young lawyers are gaining the experience and skills they need to actively participate in this marketplace of ideas.

David Cohen is the director of client service delivery at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. COHEN_David_webV2_1408-icon