What Skills Do Lawyers Need to Excel in a New Era of Business?
The theme at the last CLOC conference was all about how the legal function is going through a tremendous evolution. Businesses are changing rapidly through digital transformation and remote or hybrid work environments while trying to capture the attention of technology saturated consumers. To remain competitive, legal departments must evolve to handle new types of work and constantly advancing processes and technologies, and consider how the legal function impacts the broader organization. They need to do this while also showing that their own department is embracing change, staying up on technology, and becoming more efficient. To do this well, legal department heads and the lawyers and professionals in the department will have to learn, and practice, some new skills: embracing technology, project management, change management, and adaptability.
Some good news—recent trends in the legal space are helping departments and professionals facilitate and adapt to these changes. The first is an uptick in legal technologies available to legal departments. Instead of adapting to whatever technology the business makes available to the department, there are technologies built by lawyers for running a legal department. This trend means that lawyers have already started down the path of being more technology-forward. Second, the advent of the legal operations role—putting business discipline and rigor around the functioning of the legal department— has brought more robust project management and change management into many law departments. With these foundational blocks in place, lawyers must evolve their skills to take their department to the next level.
The first, and likely most obvious, skill an attorney needs in a rapidly evolving business environment is a firm grasp on existing and emerging technology. There are two important categories of technology to consider—the first is legal technology and the second is broader technology trends. Legal technology not only facilitates the day-to-day functioning of the legal department—with e-billing, contract management, and project intake and workflow software—but also includes more complex categories such as ediscovery and data management. To learn more about these technologies you can attend CLEs about relevant technologies in your area of practice or attend a legal technology conference. Outside of the legal space, there are also many general technology trends that are important for lawyers to be immersed in, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, and digital payments and cryptocurrency. Digital transformation is all about changing from a brick and mortar, paper-based business to one that strategically leverages technology, digital tools, and the cloud to do the work. This is important for lawyers because it impacts the way their organizations contract and manage these technologies. Migrating to the cloud also benefits lawyers because it provides new technologies to manage legal departments. Like cloud, AI has the ability to transform how lawyers work (e.g., check out our recent blog post on utilizing chatbots) as well as how their companies work. For both AI and digital transformation, reading and watching videos for IT leaders can help—although made for a different audience, there are lots of resources out there and they can provide the information relevant to lawyers. Finally, the plethora of digital payment methods and the volatility of cryptocurrency will have legal impacts in the future and lawyers should learn to understand the differences.
The next set of skills is about project execution and management. As businesses change through digital transformation, it is equally important to transform the way legal departments work. To do that, learning effective business case presentation, project management, and change management are incredibly valuable talents. While diving into a full 30-page business case can sometimes be necessary, focusing time on learning to create an executive summary business case is time better spent for lawyers. You can find resources and templates in many places, including SmartSheet and Asana.
There is a whole discipline around project management as well as multiple ways to drive results most effectively. Whether you take an agile approach or a more traditional method, the following skills are necessary:
- Cross-functional collaboration, including understanding and empathy for other departments, and influencing others
- Communication, including how to communicate effectively with a remote team – a reality that is often the norm in today’s world
- Time management and prioritization
- Leadership – leading a team and inspiring a team, and keeping team members engaged and focused both in the same office or working remotely
- Facilitating a learning mindset across the project and team – ensuring that people are looking out for ways to continuously improve, learning from each step of the project, and iterating on each phase of the project
A couple of good resources for developing these skills include PMI.org, and LinkedIn Learning courses such as Project Leadership, Project Management Foundations: Communication, and Project Management Tips. Note that this is a discipline that can take years to perfect so focus on getting familiar with the concepts and then look for ways to get real life experience in your business. The best way to master these skills is through practice.
While project management focuses on the process where you create a change, change management is a separate set of skills focused on moving people through that change. There are two components of change management lawyers need to know. The first is how to manage their own reaction to change—being adaptable can bring a lot of value to a volatile world. Professor Anne Converse Willkom of Drexel University provides some great ways to work on becoming more adaptable here. The second part of change management is helping others through change. This may be your team or it could be a team impacted by a project you are leading. Harvard Business Review has a whole category of writing dedicated to this area, highlighting the importance of leading through change.
There is a lot of information and resources to move through so it’s important to prioritize the areas and skills that will impact your role now and as you move through your career. From there, identify the list of resources you want to access to master those areas then work it in to your schedule. It’s important to budget 2-4 hours a week, at minimum, building your skills in one of these areas. If that seems like a lot, keep in mind that it is only 5-10% of a standard work week.
If you have other resources that you have used to get up to speed in any of these areas, or if you think there are other critical skills to build as a lawyer in today’s corporate legal department, don’t hesitate to reach out at email@example.com.
 You can find more information on what this change is in this article by CIO.
 It is sometimes hard to judge adaptability because we tend to be surrounded by like-minded thinkers. As such, relying on a third party resource can help. There is a great Forbes article that shares the signs of an adaptable person. Evaluate yourself versus this list and work on areas where you may not be adaptable.