This article was first published on Lexis®PSL Future of Law on 22 April 2016. Click for a free trial of Lexis®PSL.

As technology continues to change the face of the legal industry, Joanne Frears, partner at Blandy & Blandy, Kitty Rosser, associate at Birketts, and Anna Cook, consultant at Bristows, look at how technology has changed the roles of fee earners over the past few years.

Technology is changing the face of the legal industry. Established roles such as knowledge managers, IT directors and of course fee earners themselves have all been impacted in many ways. Beyond that, we are seeing the emergence of entirely new roles such as legal project managers or teams of paralegals who are no longer focused on directly supporting fee earners but are instead working on technology products built in-house. In some cases law firms are going from just selling services to actually selling technology products.

In light of all these changes, how do some of the more established members of legal teams see their roles changing? What are experienced professionals doing (or what should they be doing) to keep up to speed? Are new entrants to their professions realistic about what their futures are likely to entail and are they arriving properly equipped to perform these roles in this changing world?

The changing role of fee earners

So, how has technology changed the roles of fee earners over the past few years? According to Kitty Rosser of Birketts, the ‘default answer that tends to be given to this question is communications; we are all now firmly wedded to our Blackberrys and tablets and as a result are expected to be on hand to provide advice 24/7.

However, whilst the increased ease with which these devices enable us to communicate with our clients cannot be denied, in my view the idea of a lawyer offering round the clock availability is nothing new. I followed my father into law and have vivid childhood memories of many family evenings and weekends being interrupted by calls from clients and visits to the office.

The only difference in that regard these days is that I can now elect when to check my email or on occasion even opt to turn off my mobile rather than being at the mercy of unannounced calls to a home landline. Remote working means that I can deal with any issues that do arise as effectively from home (or wherever else I happen to be) without the inconvenience of having to go into the office.

The real change in communication in recent years has been the switch to email as the default method of communication; telephone calls seem to have become the new face to face meeting with clients expecting them to be diarised and planned in advance whilst face to face meetings are increasingly being conducted via video conference.

Likewise, business development is increasingly an online activity. As a newly qualified solicitor I would routinely attend two or three networking or marketing events per week. Five years later it is more likely that I will only attend one event per week but that I will engage with clients and contacts via Twitter and LinkedIn on a daily basis.’

Joanne Frears of Blandy & Blandy takes this point of communication further, noting that an important change is about what clients now expect: ‘Client expectations that you can always be reached have definitely changed in the last five years, as has their expectation that you will be using the same level of technology as they do – both in terms of hardware and software. Clients expect digital archiving and immediate recall of documents, ideally from a secure source, be it extranet or private cloud, with data rooms for day to day documentation as well as deals. Our clients also quite rightly expect that their lawyers will have excellent security and be able to spot a scam! All of this means that the role of lawyers has moved from custodian of knowledge for clients to curators of it.’

Anna Cook of Bristows agrees that client expectations are at the forefront of the revolution, arguing that there is a ‘need to show better alignment with clients’ strategic objectives, through technology and process and initiatives to make advice accessible.’ She says that ‘changes in technology have created a more pressing need to innovate as a route to profitability and to increase speed.’

What do fee earners need to focus on to stay ahead of the curve?

With all these changes, what can lawyers do to harness technology and use it to their advantage? According to Frears, it’s important for legal professionals to take a more business-centric approach: ‘As clients are better informed, having access to similar resources as lawyers and the infinite look-up possibilities of search engines, lawyers need to hone their commercial skills. If free data and wide access to legal knowledge means lawyers no longer need to be a memory bank of cases, then their experience of practical application of the law to real life legal scenarios becomes crucial, as this can’t be Googled.

Lawyers should be working on ways of commoditising their service for clients… and becoming business partners with clients rather than an external resource which is used only in times of crisis or change. Advances in programming, AI and virtual office presence present amazing opportunities to facilitate more dynamic ways for lawyers to work alongside clients. We should all be looking at how doing this achieves better productivity, builds client confidence and helps young lawyers to want to remain in what is otherwise a very staid profession. Technology in law firms is too often seen as a back office function and technologists need to demonstrate to fee-earners that this is no longer the case.’

Rosser agrees that there is a need for lawyers to establish their true value in light of automation and AI: ‘As individual lawyers it is incumbent upon us to simply keep up with the ever increasing array of legal software that we use on a daily basis, whether that be automated document creation and review, e-filing systems or document and knowledge management systems. At a firm level, as technology develops (particularly in the area of artificial intelligence) we need to be constantly asking what it is that we as lawyers bring to the table, what is the unique input, output or insight we offer that a machine, no matter how sophisticated, cannot?

In order to retain our value as a profession we need to remain alert to what differentiates us and we need to be prepared to make potentially radical changes to traditional business models and fee structures to ensure that we continue to highlight and maximise our professional value.’ For Cook, the most important areas for lawyers to focus on going forward are ‘management of know-how, speed of retrieval and reutilisation.’

Do new recruits have the skills they need and are they prepared for the changing profession?

When it comes to new entrants to the legal profession, the changes we have seen over recent times, both in terms of an increased business and technical focus, means that aspiring lawyers cannot simply focus on the law.

According to Rosser, ‘there is a prevalent but misguided assumption amongst new entrants that technical legal expertise is the key to a successful career. With the level of competition for training contracts that we are seeing now, technical competence or even excellence is no longer enough. An aspiring lawyer needs to offer a more rounded skill set to stand out such as additional languages or technical [IT] expertise.

Once through the door, trainees and NQs need to be prepared to spend a lot of time marketing and to think commercially about what they can bring to a firm. Based on my experience in smaller and medium sized firms, the most successful entrants I have seen have been those who can identify and derive value from a particular niche area of expertise.’

As may be expected, it seems that new entrants are pretty well skilled on the IT front, and, Rosser says, it’s other areas where they may need to improve: ‘The one crucial skill that cuts across all firm type and practice areas (and is often overlooked by younger members of the profession) is the ability to form and develop relationships; regardless of the technological backdrop a lawyer still builds a practice on the back of basic human interaction… If anything new entrants to the profession tend to be better equipped to adapting to new technologies – for the most part younger members of the profession have grown up with technology and have a level of engagement with it and acceptance of it that older members of the professional lack; the fear factor has gone.’

Frears echoes the view that new entrants are technically adept and may even have something to teach their more experienced counterparts: ‘there is a whole generation of digital natives whose experience in instant communications (which seems to baffle even the least Luddite lawyer) could be drawn upon to learn how to engage with clients in future.

I’d suggest that law firms ‘mind the generation gap’ and improve internal communications so that everyone learns something new along the way. ‘One point she makes is that the shift away from the idea of a ‘job for life’ applies equally to the legal profession: ‘I think entrants to the profession are quite realistic. Being a partner is not always the end game and law doesn’t have to be a ‘job for life’.

I would still argue that it’s a profession but professional practice should not mean a lawyer cannot participate a wider business community. The Law Society might not yet recognise that new lawyers will want a portfolio career, (with its ethos that if you are a lawyer in business, then you remain responsible as a legal advisor to it even if that’s not your role) and until it does, we will lose people from the profession whose wider experience could be of a significant benefit.’

Cook notes that clients are increasingly looking for value and that most misconceptions from new recruits centre around their time and time-based billing. But she says that ‘overall the new entrants have all the knowledge they need, but firm based training needs to adapt to focus on efficiency and speed. Training could focus more on building know how, not just tasks giving rise to billable hours.’