fivehundred magazine > Hall of Fame > That was then, this is now

That was then, this is now

Deutschland editor Anna Bauböck talks to members of The Legal 500’s Hall of Fame on the past, present, and future of the legal profession

‘Associates today think one is talking about the Stone Age when describing how you spent nights at the fax machine because no evening support staff was available and email did not exist’, says Dr. Werner Meier, head of Simmons & Simmons German finance and restructuring practice, when asked about starting his legal career in 1992.

To Andreas Bothe, senior partner and IP litigator at Hogan Lovells, the legal profession is largely unrecognisable from when he began his career some three decades ago. In years past, law firms in Germany were not allowed more than one office and they were much smaller, slower-paced environments than they are today. How times have changed.Bothe joined Droste, Pietzcker, Sprick, Ohlgart und Klosterfelde (DPSOK) in 1990, a law firm of around 15 partners, which at the time was considered substantial in size. Although described by some as ‘a factory’, the firm would be considered a far cry from the size, hustle and bustle of a modern law firm; documents were transported via regular mail, meaning clients wouldn’t receive correspondents for a couple of days, or even more than a week if it was sent overseas.

DPSOK eventually became Hogan Lovells, and instead of 15 partners Bothe now practises with more than 800, plus a couple of thousand employees, spread out over 50 offices worldwide, including four in Germany alone. But that is not the only change. The internet and digitalisation has meant instantaneous access to information and drastically reduced response times between lawyers and their clients, speeding up practices dramatically.

Each new generation of practitioners face their own unique challenges, whether that be new fields of law, the professionalisation of law firms or increased competition both locally and globally. For Dr. Michael Fammler, IP partner at Baker McKenzie in Frankfurt, where he has worked since 1990, believes the biggest challenge facing the profession is the speed of change in the market.

‘Technology has significantly increased the expected reaction time with unchanged demand for highest quality’, says Fammler. Many of the advances seen today are technology-driven efficiency, a focus on value-driven tasks, and client-demand-based business models, which therefore create a more client-centric approach and also an increasingly multidisciplinary working environment. The result, according to Fammler, is that, ‘the old approach of “better, quicker, cheaper – pick two” will not survive in a more-for-less environment of providing legal services’. But how does this affect the next generation of legal professionals?

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and LegalTech are arguably the largest contributors to the transformation of law firms and the legal sector. With the increasing use of modern technology, many see a changing role for lawyers, including the way they interact with clients and the services they can provide. Tech can transform how, when and where law is practised, providing
on-the-spot access to documents and information, anywhere and at any time. In turn, work can demand instantaneous and constant attention.

The changes in communication speed and flexibility, and the adoption of new tech for increased efficiency purposes, is clear and visible, but will machines eventually take the place of roles traditionally held by lawyers? While there seems a general consensus that AI will not replace lawyers entirely, the robot lawyer does remove the need for certain tasks to be handled by humans.

As Bothe puts it: ‘There are a lot of chances coming up with modern technology so that, in the end, we will be able to concentrate on the most special questions of law, wasting our energy less on everyday work that, to a certain extent, might be taken over by machines, or, at least, assisted by machines.’ Meanwhile, Fammler foresees ‘a much closer interaction with clients and other advisors in a multidisciplinary fashion, broken down into smaller tasks and highly interactive facilitated by new communication technology’.

Stephan Kock, a real estate finance partner and chair of Goodwin’s Frankfurt office, also recognises how new developments in the legal sector may prompt debate about lawyer fees: ‘Legal tech in its widest sense will start discussions about what lawyers, law firms and the legal profession as such will be remunerated for. The gap between scalable business and bespoke structuring work will widen. As a result the profession will reshape in size, geographical cover and profitability. Law firms will need to monitor and be open to rethinking or adapting their profit share systems to react to the changing market positioning of their firms, core products and to maintain
their culture.’

As technological and economic savviness becomes increasingly crucial, the future may also bring new roles we have yet to see. Fammler envisions that, ‘the still sharp boundaries between the expertise of different professional service firms, technical and economic experts will vanish fairly quickly to be replaced by a more holistic and multidisciplinary approach’. Similarly, Bothe believes that not only will ‘coding for lawyers be one of the obligatory classes in law schools of the future’ but ‘it will be normal that IT specialists may become partners of law firms, besides legally trained partners’.

Meier is in agreement that ‘law firms will have specialised partners and employees who deal with the technological changes’, while Kock notes that ‘even very large law firms today are still organised as partnerships in the sense of partners being lawyers’, but this may not be the model of the future. ‘Lawyers are leaders, but they are not known to be the best managers,’ he continues. ‘Therefore, the management of law firms will need to include highly professional non-lawyer managers.’

IT-specialised partners, non-lawyer managers – what about the practice of law? Despite this largely predicted diversification and blurring of roles in law firms of the future, legal expertise will still remain at the very core of the profession. Meier opines that while ‘law firms need to adapt to market and technological changes, possibly including by downsizing in some departments’, there will ‘continue to be demand for complex legal work to be handled by law firms’.

‘Creating, enforcing and exploiting new legal concepts means both challenges, but also a highly creative environment for tomorrow’s lawyer with many new jobs, but excellent traditional legal skills and simply “knowing the law” will remain the basis to tackle the pressing issues the new generations will face,’ remarks Fammler. And while few doubt the transformative power of new tech and its impact on the legal profession, its potential sometimes still feels far off. ‘I am still waiting for the “killer app” making my life as a legal advisor much easier,’ Fammler exclaims.

Making life in law – for want of a better word – ‘easier’ is also a concern for the next generation of practitioners. Both standing in opposition to the technology-driven notion of constant availability, having to respond speedily and demonstrate greater working flexibility, but also perhaps resulting as a direct consequence of these developments, the young lawyers are placing greater importance on the need for that elusive work-life balance.

‘Work-life balance has become more important for many,’ says Meier. ‘Back when I started my career in 1992 associates were not only prepared but happy to work 80- to 100-hour weeks throughout the year, and in fact for those who managed to cope with the workload until the end of the partnership track, it was easier than today to become partner. Also, people joining law firms in the early 1990s actually expected that they would stay at the same firm until they retired. Today, all that has changed dramatically, in line with general changes in the society. Today, a far lower percentage of top law school graduates is interested in pursuing a career in a law firm.

‘Law firms have reacted to this. At most top firms the workload for younger lawyers is significantly lower than in the 1990s. Male associates taking paternity leave has become quite common, and people actually take their holidays these days. The flip side is that it has become much more difficult, and in many top firms impossible, to become partner. For this reason it has become the exception rather than the rule for new associates to expect a long-term career at the same firm where they start.’

Bothe also does not underestimate the need for greater work-life-balance: ‘New developments such as home office, agile working and different office structures will have a great impact on the work done by the next generation, which will be certainly more flexible, less bound upon one single office and involving bigger global teams.’

Teamwork may indeed be another noteworthy aspect of the profession’s transformation. Alongside a stronger client-focused approach, demanding a new kind of lawyer-client closeness, there is also the increasing necessity for practitioners to collaborate among themselves. ‘We will even work more closely together in the future law firm than we are already doing today,’ foresees Bothe. ‘The singular lawyer looking after his own clients alone would probably belong to the past in short course. Bigger teams with different qualifications will be needed to fully serve clients’ changing needs.’

This collaboration also extends from one generation to the next. Bothe recognises the importance of acting as mentor and role model, but at the same time learning from younger associates and ‘coming up with great new ideas so that we will hopefully get even better together’.

Fammler agrees that, ‘working daily and closely with young talents keeps [him] up to speed with what tomorrow’s lawyers expect from practising the business of law in an ever changing world’. Meanwhile, Meier even remarks that, ‘a partner who only focuses on getting a current deal done, without giving any attention to bringing up the next generations of lawyers, is not a good partner’.

While some elements of the profession are almost paralysed by the fear of change there is agreement among our Hall of Famers that ‘there are definitely more opportunities than threats’ (Fammler) and while ‘there will be a lot of change, at the same time this means a lot of chances’ (Bothe). ‘Wherever a new challenge arises, new opportunities arise with them’, Meier concludes.

Still, what practical advice would our legal luminaries impart on their successors – the ones who will see reforms to the profession through to fruition? ‘Love and live your job’, proclaims Bothe; ‘stay away from excessive specialisation and be a good team player,’ offers Meier; ‘smile even in tough times,’ suggests Kock; while Fammler’s recommends ‘adapt to changes, contribute to innovation, but always stand up for your own conviction and stay true to yourself’.

What makes a good lawyer?

Andreas Bothe, senior partner and IP litigator at Hogan Lovells

‘The qualities of best German partners mean that they are highly committed, dedicated to the client’s needs, have an outstanding legal education and – most important – stand in for the client and know about the client’s business, particularities and needs. In my view, it is also important there is a good personal relationship between a partner and a client representative, taking into account that this relationship is built on trust and understanding.’

Dr. Michael Fammler, IP partner at Baker McKenzie

‘High quality work and responsiveness have become a given. What distinguishes the market leaders from the other experts is a deep understanding of the client’s industry and business, a proactive approach to their needs by identifying what keeps GCs awake at night, anticipating future challenges and, on this basis, being a trusted advisor.’

Stephan Kock, real estate finance partner at Goodwin

‘The best partners are honest with their teams and clients and inspire their environment. They seek to grow young talent and support them all the way into partnership. The best partners take responsibility for their team and within the firm, for their office and within the partnership and their firm towards clients or competitors.

‘Externally, best partners do not only provide top quality advice as to the depth of the relevant question but also take into account how it impacts their clients and their client relationship; the best partners have a lateral vision and a fully committed to their clients. Lawyers need to protect, guide and nourish their clients to take them where they want to be. This includes being a loyal, reliable counsel, and – not to forget – it takes a smile even in tough times.’

Dr Werner Meier, head of finance and restructuring at Simmons & Simmons Germany

‘For every law firm, when it comes to assessing the quality of its partners, top revenues is close to the top of the list. However, a partner who is a mere rainmaker, bringing in top revenues, but lacks the required soft skills, is not a good partner. That partner may be economically successful in an eat what you kill environment, but it takes more than that to be a good partner.

‘In some fields, and with some clients, it is possible for a partner to be economically successful without having top legal expertise. However, any such success is typically short lived, and in any event legal expertise must be the basis for the assessment of the quality of any partner.

‘A good partner is able not only to attract new clients, but also to retain those clients and refer them to his or her colleagues. This requires positive interaction with the relevant individuals and the client.

‘A partner who may be excellent academically but lacks the ability to go out and successfully pitch for new work is not a good partner. Every major law firm has some lawyers of this type, but these are typically not made partner at all.

Regular seminar presentations and publications are important in this regard as well.

‘A partner who acts aggressively vis-à-vis the other side (or in some cases even their own client and colleagues) is not a good partner. Aggressiveness jeopardises the client’s goals. A partner must act constructively to be serve his or her client.

‘An aggressive partner may be economically successful, particularly in an eat what you kill firm, but he or she will not provide the best possible advice to clients. Collegiality means not only cooperating well with a partner’s colleagues, but also staffing each transaction team such that the client’s interests are served best – including with partners and other colleagues from other practice groups or offices, rather than hoarding work for oneself with the hope of maximising one’s own revenues.’

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