Hannah Cottam, Director at Sellick Partnership examines what it means to be a 21st Century Lawyer

Publish date: 16/04/2018

Businesses are increasingly looking for new and innovative ways of ensuring they remain commercially competitive in a constantly evolving market, and the legal industry is no exception. What was once considered to be a traditional sector is now becoming more commercially focused – and lawyers are continuously adapting their skill sets to keep up with this growing trend. One of the most challenging aspects is encouraging legal professionals to build on the core skills required to be a lawyer in today’s modernised legal industry. Here, I take a look at the importance of adaptability in the ever-changing legal industry, as well as exactly what it means to be a lawyer in the 21st century.

Challenges the 21st century lawyer will often face

Legal professionals at all levels are bound to experience some degree of difficulty as their role becomes more multi-dimensional. Providing legal advice is incredibly complicated and time consuming by its own merits, so the challenge is finding time to also develop the commercial aspects necessary to fit in with the industry as it evolves. For this reason, while time management is an essential requirement for many roles, it is certainly a key priority for legal professionals in the digital age. It is vital that the modern lawyer possesses softer skills such as emotional intelligence, good communication skills, business acumen and the ability to manage several projects simultaneously in order to fit in well with the workings of their organisation.

Additionally, as with any period of significant change, the shift to a new way of working in an increasingly tech-focused legal industry could pose a number of issues for those accustomed to more traditional methods. Younger legal professionals are likely to be more engaged with technology as part of their daily lives, but their older, more experienced counterparts could potentially find this switch to more tech-focused roles challenging. Technology is becoming increasingly important, and being tech-savvy is now a huge advantage for legal candidates who are looking to switch roles. Technology is changing ways of working across all industries, including the legal industry and many more organisations are seeking staff who can provide insight into making existing processes more efficient.

Characteristics of a 21st century lawyer

To be a 21st century lawyer is to be multi-dimensional. Providing first-rate legal advice is, of course, still essential, but now lawyers are expected to add commercial value to their organisations in other ways. In recent years, we have seen an increase in the requirement for legal staff to provide tailored commercial advice within legal firms, on top of the necessary legal expertise. For example, it is no longer about providing their technical "letter of the law jargon – it is now about how this can be applied in a commercial way.

This commercial acumen is relatively new in terms of legal industry requirements, but it is particularly telling of the direction the sector is moving in. Continued pressures to save on costs means that law firms are combining services and bringing elements in-house that previously may have been outsourced. As a result, the staff employed by these evolving firms are facing pressures to become an 'all-rounder' with many transferable skills.

Leadership skills and adaptability are two further necessary skills displayed by the 21st century lawyer. However, it is now also necessary to have a solid understanding of the organisation they work for, while working collaboratively with all stakeholders to help streamline processes and save money for the business. Along with many other industries, the legal sector is also harnessing the power of social media to promote its services and engage with relevant audiences. For this reason, modern lawyers are expected to use this platform to create a strong market presence and profile to set themselves apart from others. The legal sector is placing an increasing focus on personal branding as an essential aspect of its employee development, and lawyers are more commonly expected to convey the core values of the business on social media platforms.

The 21st century lawyer is multifaceted and is expected to possess the core skills and knowledge required to become a legal professional, with the addition of several further attributes to ensure they are a good fit in an evolving business. The role of a lawyer is never easy, but this shift to a more commercial, 'all-rounder' professional that has a depth of specialist and generalist knowledge promises an exciting future for the industry as a whole.