An eventful year has created a more open, diverse and and democratic profession, says Jenny Hotchin
Now that the legal industry is adjusting to the future of work, rather than simply trying to figure out how to make work happen in the face of a deadly pandemic, there’s an opportunity to pause and reflect on what the past year or so has revealed.
Out of great upheavals, great things can emerge. In the UK, for example, social housing came after World War 1 and the NHS came out of World War 2. From the legal perspective, one unintended side effect of the covid-19 pandemic has been to knock out some of the elitism and favoritism from the industry and force it open the door to new ways of doing things.
While unanticipated, this impact is far from unwelcome.
Who gets a ticket?
Conferences provide a prime example of this opening up over the past year. Legal conferences are notoriously expensive, so you typically only have partners attending.
Or, if there was enough budget to bring along a junior associate, the person to get the nod would most likely be the partner’s favourite associate – not necessarily the person who would actually most benefit from attending that conference and taking a deep-dive into that particular industry.
Fortunately, many legal conferences turned to technology and went virtual in response to the pandemic. This has made conferences accessible to more people at a firm, not just those who can spend £5,000 on an entry ticket.
Now, will this level of broad accessibility continue moving forward? Maybe not – there will probably be some contraction and some tightening around who can make it past the velvet rope.
However, the lessons of this experiment in more accessible conferences will not be totally discarded. It’s highly likely some kind of hybrid attendance model – a mixture of virtual and in person attendance, with different price points for each – will be an enduring legacy, ensuring the conference doors stay pried open just a bit wider than before.
What about work allocation? Who gets to work on which projects – and how does that decision get made?
As with conference attendance, work allocation in the past has often come down to slightly arbitrary factors like seating arrangements: whoever was sat closest to a certain partner’s desk would have the prime projects thrown their way.
Sometimes, there might be more formal processes for work allocation in place, like a weekly meeting held behind closed doors by the partners to figure out what projects are coming in, what resources are required and how to match people with projects.
Given the extreme time pressures partners are under and the need to staff projects quickly, what this means in practice is that – as with the decision of who gets to attend a conference – a partner will have a mental ‘short list’ of who they think can handle the work appropriately. ‘Best to go with a familiar name,’ the thinking goes.
Again, there is nothing nefarious here – this is simply decision-making under tight deadlines. But in most cases, work allocation decisions are based on expediency, not on what's best for both the development of the individuals and the team as a whole.
The past year of large-scale remote working – which will continue in some hybrid form as part of the future workplace – has served to bring these types of issues into sharper relief. What happens to those junior lawyers when they don't have proximity to somebody more senior who's getting them on the right projects and helping them develop?
If the partner doesn’t have the team physically around them, will they just email the one person that they know can do the job, while the person who is slightly quieter doesn’t receive any emails?
New ways to find expertise
Technology has a beneficial role to play here in ensuring more lawyers get exposed to the goings on in the firm, including not just the actual projects that are up for assignment, but also the knowledge and expertise that is accumulated by working on those projects.
New forms of technology like knowledge graphs can make use of structured data – information from billing systems, time entry systems, document management systems and more – to identify where expertise resides within a firm.
For example, seeing that a certain associate has billed 100 hours to real estate matters for clients based in Singapore; and that she has authored a best practice lease template that has been downloaded from the document management system dozens of times, would signal a degree of expertise in Asian real estate.
Suddenly, finding the best person to assign to a project isn’t a matter of guesswork or personal preference.
Law firms have turned to these new types of technology over the past year out of necessity. It was clear that the old ways of knowledge and information-sharing – including popping your head into someone’s cubicle to ask who was an expert on a particularly arcane topic – were no longer feasible in an era of remote work.
Beyond helping professionals to continue sharing knowledge regardless of where they’re physically located, these technologies allow knowledge accumulated on an individual level to be shared more broadly across an organisation, democratising that knowledge.
For instance, knowledge that has been developed over decades by a senior partner can now be accessed by everyone at all levels, in all teams and in all locations.
When the information in documents and other files is unstructured, it's almost unusable – it’s essentially ‘trapped’ in that document, providing little value to anyone aside from the person who created it.
However, once that information is extracted and structured, it can be organised, searched, shared, interrogated, combined with other information and applied.
When we use technology to unlock knowledge from contracts, far more people have access to it, broadening its reach. Within a firm, this may be sharing drafting standards or market norms with regards to a specific point in a contract.
Making this information available back to the larger team opens up knowledge silos, enabling lawyers to use that data when negotiating current deals.
The firm and its professionals are not the only ones to benefit though. Unlocking knowledge in this way also makes this useful information more accessible to a wider cross section of people outside the firm, including clients and non-lawyers.
Key information can be shared without publishing entire documents, mitigating information security risks.
So rather than valuable knowledge residing in the heads of the few, knowledge can be unlocked and shared more broadly across the extended organisation.
For an industry that has historically been based on charging by the hour for the knowledge inside one person’s brain, unlocking and sharing knowledge in this way is nothing short of revolutionary.
The walls come down
The pandemic and the future workplace that it has helped forge has inadvertently opened up and democratised multiple corners of the legal space. It is impacting everything from who gets to attend conferences, to how work gets allocated and how knowledge gets disseminated within the organisation.
In all cases, a liberated thinking with regards to technology has helped to usher in more openness and greater democratisation on these fronts.
This opening up and diversification has been a largely positive development for the industry, bringing in fresh perspectives and voices. Carrying some of this spirit of openness forward will be beneficial not just to individual lawyers, but to the industry as a whole.
Jenny Hotchin is legal practice lead at iManage RAVN imanage.com