An interview with Christina Blacklaws

With her unique vantage point, we sat down with the President of the Law Society to explore the changing career paths available to professionals today.

Christina Blacklaws

Christina studied Jurisprudence at Oxford and has developed and managed law firms, including a virtual law firm, since 1991. In 2011 she set up the Co-operative Legal Services family law offering, later becoming their director of policy, and is currently the Chair of the Ministry of Justice's Law Tech delivery panel which looks to accelerate the development and adoption of new legal technologies.

More recently, Christina has been the Director of Innovation at top 100 firm Cripps LLP, is a member of the Family Justice Council, trustee of LawWorks and council member for the Women Lawyers Division.

She is an award winning published author, speaker and lecturer and frequent media commentator.

To what extent do you feel that today’s typical entry pathways into the legal profession adequately prepare the lawyers of the future for success in the face of rapidly changing client needs and market conditions?

I think, first and foremost, that we are in a very dangerous situation at the moment because I don’t think that the education at first degree level and potentially (although I’m less clear about this) at the vocational studies level, is actually fitting our students for the delivery of legal services in the 21st century let alone for the great and seismic changes that are about to disrupt our industry. So I do think that there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of early education in relation to a legal career.

Having said that, I also recognise that this is, as you know, an intellectually demanding profession and that we must not lose intellectual rigour from our process in our desire and drive to cover off more soft skills and business skills. So we need to get the balance right in relation to that. But I think the word balance is key. At the moment there are very few universities, which are teaching anything more than the intellectual or the very practical – giving students the opportunity to take part in law clinics and the like. So I think there is a gaping hole here that needs to be filled if we are thinking about the skill set that is required for the lawyers of today and of the future.

That gap is clearly around business understanding; around soft skills but I would say more, for me, around emotional intelligence as well. There are of course challenges in how you train for that. But in terms of the qualities that are required for the lawyers of the future, I think that we will continue to need a very high and defined emotional intelligence. This is what will enable us to add value to our clients in an increasingly technological and automated world. We will struggle, I think, to justify our existence purely on the basis of knowledge of the law and experience of it. What will define us and where we will be able to evidence the most added value is in our interpretation of the law in relation to our clients’ circumstances and needs.

So if we start to think about that as the skill set that is required then it is much more about a depth of understanding of business and a huge and profound ability to engage and communicate: these are going to be absolutely key.

I also think that an understanding of the technological solutions available is a requirement. That’s not necessarily to say that all lawyers will need to be coders or anything like that, but we will need to understand how the algorithms have come up with the solutions.

Probably therefore – and this is a challenge with what has always been seen as a liberal arts degree – an understanding of mathematics is going to be more important. As an aside, that would be a big challenge for me there as an individual!  

With all of that in mind, in summary I think that soft skills, an understanding of coding, the intellectual rigour, plus the ability to communicate all of that in a way that fits with clients’ needs, will be the true hallmarks of the next generation of lawyers. I would also add to the early education piece the ability to think and critically analyse. So I think we should all, ideally, be studying philosophy because it is about learning how to think, not what to think, and that is a challenge because it is not the way that young people are currently taught.

I was talking to a chartered surveyor a few days ago who made a similar observation. He said in his experience, young people coming into that profession had been typically encouraged to look for a process that gives binary answers rather than developing the ability to create and structure an argument. 

Yes. And you know I’m not suggesting that we were all trained in that way either. But actually it is probably what is required for the future.

group of colleagues at a desk

'That gap is clearly around business understanding; around soft skills but I would say more, for me, around emotional intelligence as well.'

Another area we’ve been looking at is how law firms can develop early career pathways that encourage diversity of aspiration beyond the old linear progression from trainee to Partner. For example: how they can identify potential leaders / managers of the future and ensure that those roles are attractive to able people.

Now I think this is already happening in the sense that many millennials (and of course generation Z) are now entering our workforce. These people do not necessarily aspire to follow the linear progression path from trainee to partner. So actually it is of necessity that alternative career paths and indeed alternative ways of progressing and rewarding people are put in place

I think this issue is very difficult for law firms; it’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s an assault on the business model, the hierarchical model that we’ve had for generations now - probably for at least 30 to 40 years - and that has been a successful model. Up to now, we have had a pyramid and it is leveraging the more junior people and producing the profit for the equity partners who have accepted their ten years of toil to get to that point. And that’s the social contract; that’s the bargain. Now, I think we’re looking at a generation that is not willing to enter into that bargain.

So do I have the answers there? No, but I think that we have some clear indicators as to what millennials in particular are looking for in their work: it is interest, it is meaning and it is flexibility and change.

All of these things are challenging but not impossible for law firms to build into their career progression models. And I think that where we have again historically fallen foul is that we have given our best fee earners management positions and expected them to have a neat transfer of that skill set. Of course, it’s rarely the case. So I think in terms of developing potential leaders, it’s a matter of identifying them pretty early because you’re going to have to work very hard to keep them. It isn’t a matter of looking at your five to eight year PQE talent pool, I would say – you need to look much earlier than that if you are going to be able to give them the development to be able to take on leadership roles early.

It isn’t a matter of looking at your five to eight year PQE talent pool, I would say – you need to look much earlier than that if you are going to be able to give them the development to be able to take on leadership roles early.

Christina, when you say “give them the development”, are you envisaging a formal leadership development programme or is it merely identifying those with the leadership potential and encouraging them to take up roles that allow the development of those leadership skills “by doing”?

I’d say certainly the former. And I think that feeds into the diversity point: we need the diversity of thought and diversity of skill set as well, because I think our vision of a leader has been fairly uniform and again, I don’t think that that necessarily works. It works in what was a hierarchical pyramidical structure but actually if we are disaggregating legal businesses more and we’re going to have more diversity in terms of the roles and in terms of the way that people work then you need more diversity in terms of the leadership.

By that, I mean not just the diversity that we think of as evident, protected characteristics, but also the type of people that we are looking at to be leaders. So I think we should be moving away from that very monochrome, uniform approach to building a leader and towards seeing the potential in people and developing that.

And of course that feeds into more general issues around diversity and inclusion. Also I think it goes hand in hand with innovation, because what we’re talking about here is an environment in which people can be themselves, so that you’re actually bringing your whole self to work, being creative and doing that in a much more dynamic, fluid environment: all of which is very challenging for law firms. We’re not known for any of those characteristics. But that’s where we’ll get to keep the millennials and the Gen Z because they’ll think; “Yes, this is a really exciting, interesting, innovative place to be and I see that I’m valued”.

Already as a profession we are pretty much representative of the general population – but if you look at young people studying law at universities, about 40% BAME, and about two thirds are female. So if that is our talent pool and we are not creating an environment which is going to be supportive and attractive to those people, then we are fishing in a very very small pond.

I was just thinking that some of the aspects that you outlined about what it is that millennials value - so interest, meaning, flexibility and change in their jobs. It seems to me that that the development of those characteristics is in itself a key part of innovation for the future. There’s a lot of enablers that sit around that including technology but a lot of this is actually about cultural change. 

Yes, fundamentally it is.

And that in turn requires significant leadership capability of those currently in leadership positions.

I think that it requires us to think differently about leadership and in particular less hierarchically about leadership. If law firms are going to succeed in making culture change then they need to empower new leaders as well. And, slightly tangentially, we need to start rewarding things differently because we’re never going to get change, particularly at middle ranking levels, unless you reward those behaviours. That’s another whole big question about what we value and how we reward it. But without facing those questions and making those changes, it’s very difficult to effect any significant cultural change and particularly over the time frames that this needs to be completed. So law firms will have to be radical and will have to, as I say, turn themselves upside down, in effect.

For example, reverse mentoring is something that we very much promote in our diversity and inclusion space because it is one way for the leaders to hear what it is actually like from the ground up. The higher up you get, the more remote you are from that; that’s the genuine reality.

How does the profession make diversity in all its dimensions simply part of “Business as usual”?

I would say it should be absolutely mainstream - part of everything that we do. And to get that cultural shift, you often need to have fairly consistent reminders of that. One of the things that we’ve learnt from the 200 women’s round tables that have formed part of our women in leadership in law programme, is that a very good way of ensuring that firms do create diverse and inclusive workforces (because inclusion is really important as well) is to ensure that there are things like just-in-time training so that, for example, if you’re about to go into a recruitment process, it’s at that point that you revisit the training to raise your awareness again. You need that, and also to have systemic checks and balances in place. There are things that can be done to ensure that we have both cultural change and then cultural consistency to ensure that diversity is 'business as usual'.

cityscape of the Shard London

And I think, building on that, adding some highly visible and transparent metrics. Of course there’s no single right answer as to what metric you choose but actually having clear visibility always seems to me to be a good thing in supporting change.

I agree. I call it systemic. So I think there are things that need to be in place which ensure that you’re measuring the right things and that you have the policies, which will support you to deliver your ambitions in this.

For example, the policy may be that we will always have gender balance on any decision making body. To ensure that there is, we will follow the Mansfield rule, so always have 30% of our applicants being women or being BAME for example. These sorts of things can really shift the needle.

To what extent do you feel that the profession must look to bring in different types of people with different mindsets and skills sets in the future?

I think probably that, as a profession, we will be working more collaboratively with people with different skill sets and experiences. I don’t think that we’ll magically find individuals who are able to do everything. I think we need to recognise (and value more) other experiences and skill sets.

At the moment, law firms have this enormous dividing line between lawyers and non-lawyers, legal departments and business support departments. That, I think, really needs to disappear so that successful teams can be created. I think for any legal work of any size, we’re talking about teams. The lawyers will be in the mix but so will the data analysts, so will the project managers, so will others even at the really technical end - perhaps the computer coders might also be part of the team. But, save for lawyers having an understanding of this, I don’t see that that will be the core legal skill set. I think it’s unrealistic to think that we might be able to do everything.

The balance between skills and knowledge, this is a really interesting one because it really depends what we need to know. As processes become more automated, maybe our knowledge base becomes very, very different. Perhaps I don’ t need to know about the statute on some topics or I don’t need to keep in my head where this regulation is, but my value is to bring something different to that – more around my judgement on the application of the regulation. In other words, my knowledge needs to be a profound understanding of how to leverage information and the new knowledge tools.

I think that there’s a piece of development there, which will change quite rapidly whereas we’ve always valued much more the kind of “black letter law” knowledge. I think that is going to be largely automated. So I think skills and knowledge will be different in the future and I think skills will be increasingly important. Those emotional intelligence skill sets will be right at the foreground there.

cityscape of London skyline

How do you see changes in the later stages of careers in the legal profession?

We’ve spoken about early career pathways, leadership and the different types of skill that will drive success in the profession in the future. How do you see changes in the later stages of careers in the legal profession?

I think this is a really interesting issue across the profession; from small firms to the very largest of firms. Things are changing a little bit in the City. A few years ago, if you were aged 50, people would start to look at you, and perhaps think; “Look at you, you’re still here then”. I think that’s slightly moving now and in general I see greater agility and a more flexible approach.

Of course it is really important that the high-performing people who are used to working extremely hard and who have a lot of their own identity invested in their careers, have the next stage of their lives properly considered. I think it is right for law firms to be involved in this to support their colleagues who are moving from a full-on role into less high-octane roles perhaps, whether that’s within the profession or in other roles.

In the past, we used to see that, on the Friday, you were a high-powered leader, and on the Monday you weren’t; I think that is, psychologically, very very challenging for people. It also means that, as a business, you could be losing huge value for no particularly useful end. With that in mind, it seems to me that what Allen & Overy and other firms are doing with their alumni is really good; it’s interesting and appropriate.

I think it is the time to have those sensible conversations (and indeed for the people to see the role models) at the point where they are perhaps entering their last five years of high-octane career and want to think about the next stage. I think this is vital. If you can have those role models, you can build those career paths for the next phase. That gives a lot of reassurance to individuals who do not want to see themselves as falling off the edge of the cliff just because they got to 55 or 60 or even 70 or 80. There is a huge amount that those generations can give back into the world of work and it is, quite frankly, foolhardy not to leverage that advantage.

And yet very few firms in my experience have a formal structure to do that. 

I know. I do think it’s a real gap in the market.

Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to talk today. 

It’s my pleasure of course.