Like all of the learned professions (and most work in general), the legal profession has undergone profound change over the past few decades.
And there is no reason to think that the way things are done now is the way they will be done until the end of time.
So, in this article, we examine some of the historical changes to the legal profession, and take a look further forward to what changes may be coming next.
The reliance on postal communication
Like most white-collar work, corporate law was revolutionised by the introduction of the internet and email.
Not too long ago, the mail room was a bustling hive of activity in every major law firm around the world.
In Ireland, law firms were so deeply dependant on postal services that during a mail strike by An Post in 1979, a group of Dublin firms formed the Dublin Documents Bureau (which later became DX Ireland, and which is now Hays DX.)
The Bureau guaranteed that law firms could receive communications from clients and could mail important correspondence to one another.
E-mail and the beginnings of the modern law firm
While the law is, and always has been, a busy occupation, the speed of correspondence brought by email has drastically altered the pace and consideration-time for dealing with queries.
For example, while a senior lawyer would once have received their client queries in the morning post or DX drop off, and then considered their responses carefully before sending them by return of post at the end of the day, a modern General Counsel would be under pressure to respond to an email from the CEO almost immediately.
This means that, while previously advice had time to be mulled over before being proffered, now there are often mere minutes to consider what the response should be before detailing and submitting it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that any more (or less) work gets done, it simply means that the way work is done has adapted due to the change in expectations brought about by new technology.
The growth of in-house law
Less of a technologically driven change, but equally seismic in terms of the foundational change in how corporate law is practiced, has been the rise of the in-house lawyer.
In this article from 2016 which appeared in The Practice (published by the Harvard Law School), David B. Wilkins’ key takeaway on the growth of in-house law was that:
“Supporters of the in-house counsel movement typically advance three types of arguments to justify a greater role for internal lawyers: an economic argument, which holds that strengthening in-house legal departments will lower legal costs; a substantive argument, which holds that internal lawyers will give better legal advice than outside lawyers because of their more intimate knowledge of the company’s business and culture; and a professional argument, which holds that inside lawyers are better positioned to be the guardians of the company’s corporate citizenship and long-term interests and values.”
Applying six interrelated metrics to measure whether this was the case, David found that “…there is strong evidence that legal departments have changed on all six of these dimensions in line with the tenets of the in-house counsel movement.”
So, in short, in-house law is now a bigger and more influential department in most companies than it historically used to be, and this is because it is (a) more cost effective and (b) the work is done to a higher standard.
The rise of the Alternative Legal Solution Provider (ALSP)
The next step along the journey of improving the quality of work and increasing efficiency, as we have seen for the past several years, has been the increased use of Alternative Legal Solution Providers (ALSPs) by most corporates and law firms.
In fact, their use is so ubiquitous that a study compiled by Thomson Reuters earlier in the year found that in the U.S. 79% of law firms and 71% of corporations now use ALSPs.
In-house lawyers themselves, at the same time, are beginning to appreciate the lifeline that ALSPs offer.
Indeed, the modern lawyer is so inundated with work that carving out some administratively heavy legal process work and outsourcing it to an ALSP can bring much needed breathing space.
The cost of missing out
While the efficiencies brought by these advances in technology and structure have undoubtedly improved overall output at corporates, their impact becomes most stark when one considers what would become (or indeed what will become) of the company that refuses to use them.
Sticking doggedly to analogue photography cost Kodak famously. And that was despite the fact that they developed the first self-contained digital camera.
While industry stalwarts tend not to worry too much about their competition being early adopters of new methods or technologies, or the competitive lead it may cause them to surrender, perhaps instead they should consider the risks of being laggards to innovation.