Updated: Feb 17
It’s no secret that the law firm model is changing for many firms, and the culture is changing, too.
For many, gone are the days of cushy seniority and straightforward partner tracks. Instead, today’s attorneys need to bring fresh perspective—and cashflows—to their firms if they want to move up the chain.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating editorial on this shift, with perspectives on how competition is increasing in the current legal landscape. The lawyers themselves are fighting for the upper hand (and the first promotion), while the firms are making compromises to attract and retain top talent.
“This is life at the modern law firm, where not all partners are created equal, and data and money rule,” says writer Sara Randazzo.
The Tides of Change
At the firm level, the article discusses changes in partnership structures and billable rates as tactics by which modern firms are keeping up with the hustle. Another increasingly popular option is moving to a cost recovery model, in which firms recoup expenses in order to better invest in the latest technologies and deliver unique, impactful results for their clients.
But what about the lawyers themselves? If climbing the law firm ladder means attracting business and tackling more cases for ever more clients, how can any semblance of work-life balance come into focus for new and established attorneys?
Without a doubt, the life of a successful attorney isn’t an easy one—making partner is quite a feat and requires a heck of a lot of work. Despite the increasing pressure, however, there are only so many hours in the week (and only so much patience for devoting them all to one’s career).
All of this means attorneys need to find ways to work smarter, not just harder.
3 Major Opportunities for Growth
Fortunately, there are many opportunities to specialize, learn, and differentiate as the legal profession evolves alongside emerging technologies and growing data challenges.
A rapidly evolving regulatory and legal environment may keep lawyers in every vertical on their toes, but it also gives new and experienced attorneys a chance to dive in and assert themselves as experts in new, high-stakes fields. Additionally, the right tech skills can help lawyers accomplish more during working hours. And, of course, the right relationship-building techniques make impressions that last.
To get the upper hand in the race to a successful career, lawyers should focus on developing those talents. Here are some thoughts on where to start:
1. MASTERING EMERGING MARKETS
Many firms are looking to build their pipelines by touching on niche markets and establishing themselves as legal experts on new, growing fields of law. To do it, they need attorneys who know their stuff—highly trained, innovative lawyers who are ready and willing to invest their work in today’s most unique matters.
That could be you.
Study current case law, get your hands on cases that involve the fields that most interest you, and dig deep into learning opportunities that will boost the knowledge you’ll bring to the table.
You can explore several such subjects at Relativity Fest this fall. For example, spend an hour in “Defending IP and Trade Secrets: How to Shape Positive Outcomes with e-Discovery” or “Blockchain Assets: Identification, Analysis, and Review” to get started.
2. BUILDING TECHNICAL APTITUDE
Dictating memos to your assistant and requesting print-outs of documents for review doesn’t cut it in the tech-forward culture of today. Younger generations of lawyers are technology natives, so working with the latest tools is a no-brainer for many of them—meaning the bar is getting higher for everyone.
The right technology also helps attorneys be more productive with their time. Leveraging features like conceptual analytics and communication analysis makes sifting through massive amounts of data much faster, so case strategies come together more quickly and accurately.
Finally, clients are demanding tech expertise—and the innovations that come with it—from their counsel. Understanding how technology can accelerate good business for your firm can make you an important resource for times of transformation.
At Relativity Fest, attend “Build the Business: How Legal Tech Creates Value for Firms and Clients” and “The Good, Bad, and Ugly Behind Leap-Frogging Your Firm’s e-Discovery Practice into the 21st Century” to develop the big ideas that will get you noticed.
3. FOSTERING POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Even the brightest minds can’t share their light in isolation. The legal profession requires tactical and technical expertise, sure—but interpersonal skills go a long way in establishing a successful career in this space.
In many ways, cutthroat advocacy has become unproductive in the face of huge data burdens and high legal stakes. Knowing how to work well not just with your colleagues and clients, but also opposing counsel, can make or break the outcome of your case—and it can have a huge difference in how painful the path to resolution can be.
As for working with clients? Those expectations have changed, too. And you can’t hope to bring in new business if you don’t know what they’re looking for.
To hone these “soft” but critical skills, don’t miss “Using Cooperation to Achieve ‘Just, Speedy, and Inexpensive’” or “Secrets from Corporate Counsel: The Law Firm—Corporate Counsel Relationship” in Chicago this October.
Although the pressure may be higher than ever for many of today’s lawyers, there’s also huge opportunity to establish the legal career you find most rewarding. New niches are emerging all the time, and hard work is not going unnoticed by decision-makers.
If you’ve chosen the law as your path, be courageous enough to do it differently than your peers. Your trajectory will thank you—and your sense of purpose in a hectic, high-stakes field will be much stronger for it.
Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.