Future-gazing not preparing lawyers for the present

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Picture: Getty
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Young legal workers should be seen as the drivers of the profession’s future

Future-gazing has never been more in vogue in the legal profession. With many still being buffeted by the winds of economic change as a result of the global recession, some look to the future for comfort, deriving little from the present. It might be said that two future-gazing titles released earlier this year have given little comfort on what that future might hold. Both Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow Lawyers: An Introduction to your Future and Bruce MacEwan’s Growth Is Dead: Now What? predict a radically changed legal landscape, with revolutionised methods of delivering legal services, bearing little resemblance to the past. Both, we argue, are essential reading for lawyers in Scotland – for the young and also the young at heart.

The future partners of tomorrow

But what do the young lawyers of today – the future partners of tomorrow – see in store? Members of the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association, set up in 1974, are perhaps well placed to comment. Our members are, in the main, students, trainee solicitors, newly qualified and junior lawyers, just embarking on their careers in the profession. Their perspective matters, simply for the reason that they are the future of the profession. Yet rarely are they asked to comment on what they see in store. Their current education and training too often focuses on the development of skills for the here and now, without addressing the skills needed for the future.

Has the time come to stop future-gazing, and wake up to the change already upon us and soon to be? The “more-for-less” challenge and the increasing sophistication of IT are already driving a new model for delivering legal services. This has been perhaps most dramatically seen in Glasgow over the last 12 months, with the arrival of both Ashurst LLP’s legal process outsourcing centre and Dundas & Wilson CS LLP’s legal services unit packaging and commoditising legal services, while also creating entirely new career paths for young people in the legal profession in Scotland. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: what further new delivery models are in store over the coming year?

Driving change

Susskind’s taunt – what work is a lawyer uniquely qualified to undertake? – is already driving further revolution and cannibalisation. We predict the coming 12 months will see more lawyers asking themselves in a more proactive way how a lawyer’s work can be undertaken more quickly, cheaply and efficiently, and to a higher quality.

More lawyers will recognise that if you do not drive change, it simply happens to you, even if this means disrupting and destroying current livelihoods, in order to find new and better ways of delivering legal services.

Some of the bright new ideas must inevitably lie with young lawyers. Yet these ideas and the future-gazing are too often reserved to senior partners. The Facebook generation, having grown up with ever-adapting IT, are perhaps also well placed to drive new methods of delivery.

Scotland has long had a tradition of invention and innovation amongst its young people: legal services should be no different. With this spirit in mind, the SYLA will host next year’s European Young Bar Association Spring Conference, from 13-15 March 2014. Its theme will evoke just these issues, and see Scotland’s young lawyers debate the coming change with their counterparts from across Europe. We encourage you all, in turn, to encourage your young lawyers (and the future of your businesses) to attend and engage with the debate on their future.

In the meantime, look around at your trainees: do they have the next big idea? Talk to your young lawyers, engage with them, probe them on Susskind’s future-gazing. The books might theorise, but your young lawyers will have to put the theory into action. A culture of open discussion and debate with young lawyers on the future business models for delivering legal services should – and must – be encouraged. Who knows, those young lawyers might just be sitting on the concept that saves your firm.

• Fiona McAllister is president, Scottish Young Lawyers Association, Emma Boffey vice-president and Andrew Jackson a committee member. www.syla.co.uk

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