In the legal space, change is a constant. Advances in technology and evolving privacy regulations have prompted shifts within organizations, from business strategy to individual roles within legal departments. Ask an attorney if "data analysis” was part of her law school education and you would likely be met with a look of bewilderment.
If change is the only sure bet in our industry, what wisdom can we impart to the next generation of legal professionals? What do they need to know to forge a successful career in the legal space? What are their options?
To uncover insights that may help answer these questions, RelativityOne Silver partner FTI Technology and Relativity commissioned The General Counsel Report: Corporate Legal Departments in 2020, a study by Ari Kaplan Advisors, which surveyed general counsel on legal issues affecting business and the legal profession.
The study results were presented at the “Business of Law 2020” session at Relativity Fest. Sophie Ross, global chief executive officer at FTI, moderated a panel that included David Horrigan, our discovery counsel and legal education director; Jessica Nolan, senior vice president and general counsel of PLZ Aeroscience; and Ari Kaplan, principal at Ari Kaplan Advisors. During the session, each panelist expounded on the survey findings with personal thoughts and experiences.
Missed the session? Here are a few key takeaways.
#1: The role of in-house counsel has transformed from reacting to legal issues to proactively collaborating with the executive team as a business strategist.
According to the study, 97 percent of participants agreed that GCs have emerged as business strategists within their organizations.
“Historically, the GC was perceived as an impediment—that’s where you’d hear ‘no,’” said David, setting the stage for how the role has evolved. Regarded as the proverbial gatekeeper, the legal department was the place where innovative ideas were declared dead on arrival due to GCs’ singular focus on the legal risks of doing business.
With the automation of basic legal practices, new roles have emerged within legal departments. From data analysts to project managers, tech-focused talent streamlines problem-solving processes, freeing up the GC to focus on business growth instead of merely keeping the lights on—or, as Jessica eloquently put it, “growing the topline versus only protecting the bottom line.”
Jessica went on: “The legal role has become the department of ‘how’ as opposed to the department of ‘no.’ I need to be a business partner and support the company’s efforts to grow revenue. My job is to say ‘yes’ and understand our goals. It’s a big evolution. This role as a business partner is something that law firms and law schools don’t prepare you for.”
“It’s a business unit. Legal teams are turning into consulting bodies. We may even see ‘product counsel’ as a future career,” added David.
Ari noted that GCs “have to be an ambassador to IT and procurement—embedding yourself in the process as a trusted advisor who lives there versus within a department is key.”
#2: Enterprise risk is a top-level concern, and revenue hinges on compliance.
GCs now have a seat at the table as business strategists because they bring value in understanding risks which are specific to their businesses. The advent of data privacy and security regulations has kept companies on their toes complying with laws such as GDPR and CCPA. One survey participant noted, “as [these] issues have become drivers of volatility in company valuations, executive teams and boards are making the role of the GC more central to leadership.” GCs recognize that their customers’ voices can make or break their businesses. Reputational risk has become a rising area of concern, and data breaches hurt a company’s reputation.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to risk and compliance.
One CLO respondent believes data intelligence will increase the legal department’s value within their organization. They stated: “Legal innovations will play a major role going forward, including for data protection; there will be new ways of generating value from the data.”
“Process management and legal operations trends are making law departments a stronger part of the organization’s business,” said another lawyer.
Reducing risk and promoting compliance is a value-add that influences increase in revenue. An organization whose reputation is untarnished by data breaches and compliance violations will be successful. “We have a saying that ‘compliance is revenue’ and we emphasize internally that compliance will generate revenue because it assures consumers that we can be trusted and act responsibly,” said one GC.
#3: GCs lack confidence in law firms’ tech competence, and attorneys overall would agree. But new law school curricula offer hope for the future.
Even if technology advances their companies’ business strategies, GCs don’t trust that outside counsel have enough technological competence to participate in the shift. According to the study, just 39 percent of GCs said they believe most attorneys have adequate tech competence (10 percent said they didn’t know). Two-thirds said the same about paralegals.
From the GC’s perspective, Jessica declares the current landscape to be a “watershed moment of updating in-house technology.” She noted that plenty of firms are using different legacy tools. “As lawyers, we are traditionalists by nature.”
Jessica conceded that “we will continue to have litigation support and paralegals relied on as the experts [on these technologies]. It’s difficult for more senior attorneys to keep up with tech changes, leaving a place where lit support adds a ton of value.”
But the panel and survey participants agree that technical competence within law departments will change.
The study notes: “as they strive to bring their law departments into the next decade, participating general counsel described an expansive use of SaaS tools, an increased interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence, a broad familiarity with e-discovery software and services, and defined views on the state of technological competence in legal.”
“Law schools are also changing—blockchain and data science are bringing students forward. Soon enough, [incompetency] won’t be an issue because it will be ingrained in who they are,” added Ari during the Fest session. “Technology is important, and it’s not taking away jobs. Opportunities are being created.”