My advice would be that they have to start thinking about this at least two years out, but I think the big difficulty is that many partners don't like to tell their colleagues that they are thinking about it. They're concerned that if they do, other partners will start to tread on their client base, so there is a natural reluctance. I think that is definitely changing and firms are trying to make this a topic which can be openly discussed because, otherwise, the risk is that the person then leaves the firm carrying with them the huge amount of know-how and data, which isn't properly passed on. It’s clear to me, therefore, that as careers become longer, more fluid, and more diversified, any organisation which doesn’t face up to the challenge of helping their generations to manage their transitions is going to have a problem with their talent pool.
In terms of transitioning and the generational change, I think also that there is a tendency, particularly when it comes to leadership succession planning at a senior level, for people to look at human resources strategy in terms of the current managing partner’s term of office. But I think that keeping a much longer-term vision is really critical because the effects of a change in human resource – especially at a senior level – take a long time to feed through, and by the time they happen you can't do much about it, and also it takes a long time to correct it. You see that with firms who might go through phases when they don't take on many trainees; they stop taking trainees and then a few years later they ask: ‘Where are all our mid-level associates?’
Looking ahead, what skill-sets will be key for the ‘lawyers of the future?'
Well I think we need to look through the client lens here. They will continue to want better, more efficient, faster service, and will expect their lawyers to have the skills to embrace these new ways of working, especially because they will be doing it themselves.
In terms of skills, being technologically savvy, must be one for future practitioners, and having that awareness of the possible contribution of technology to practice. It will affect a professional’s ability to function in the marketplace.
Other important skills will be lateral thinking, and being open to change, because you won’t be in the same job throughout your career. So a flexible mind-set and being prepared to re-train and re-skill throughout your career will be key too. If you start off your career as one type of lawyer, you will have to be open to become a different type of lawyer, or perhaps not a lawyer at all, later on! And that ability to shift will be more important also for the senior lawyers to transition at the end of their careers too.
Finally, what do you see as an overriding challenges for leaders of legal service providers to solve?
Well one challenge, bringing this all together, is highlighted from research by one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms very recently. Research suggested that the cost of managing teams and human capital was actually going up, not going down, and all the complex dynamics we’ve covered in this discussion support that perspective, I think. So whatever your teams and your workforce looks like, this whole issue of the cost of maintaining, motivating and retaining that human resource, which is critical for you to deliver your legal services, becomes more critical, more complex and needs much more focus than it has received in the past – and the leaders of firms will need a lot more support and training themselves to do it well.
Also, I think that one critical question for the sector is whether or not we can create a sustainable professional working life because I think in some respects, the jobs of lawyers have become unsustainable. Women have voted with their feet to reconcile a number of competing work-life demands, so I think the challenge for the leaders of firms going forward is: ‘how do you build a sustainable professional career, which is going to be appealing to all the different people?'