Looking forward: Opportunity in change

Caroline Firstbrook is the global Chief Operating Officer of Clifford Chance and has a background in strategy consulting and entrepreneurship. She reflects on the changing operational landscape of the legal sector.

My advice to future lawyers is surprisingly similar to the advice I’d give my younger self as I embarked on my career in strategy consulting. At a high level, it is to embrace change, move out of your comfort zone and continually challenge yourself to find new ways of adding value.

That’s not to say that things haven’t changed, particularly in the legal sector. Our clients’ needs continue to evolve. Businesses of tomorrow will have tighter budgets and higher expectations. Being client-focused has long been essential, but as the market moves towards services that are more bespoke and more flexible, the voice of the client will become increasingly important.
Successful lawyers will need to be open to change, even if it means leaning into their discomforts and taking risks. This has always been true, but as the pace of change has accelerated, it has never been more relevant than it is now.

Firms need to accept that we don’t always need people to be physically present to do good work.

Tomorrow’s lawyers will need to learn and adapt quickly; the moment they start falling into a pattern, they will already be behind. So my advice to all young lawyers is this: constantly ask yourself – what could I be doing differently to better meet my clients’ needs? Change can be daunting, but will present you with great opportunities to learn new skills, broaden your network of contacts, and put yourself at the forefront of legal, commercial and technological developments.

Technology has already had a huge impact on how we work, and this will continue. The new reality is agile working, engaging with virtual teams and using technology to collaborate with colleagues, clients and other professional services firms. Silos will become increasingly dangerous places to be, and the most successful lawyers will operate in interconnected networks that give them access to a wide range of perspectives and capabilities. Making this work will rely on high-quality teamwork and communication skills. Successful lawyers have always had these qualities. In the future, lawyers will need to meet even higher standards.

Agile working will also allow future professionals to manage their work-life balance in a more flexible way. “Presenteeism” has endured far longer than it should have. For many people, increased flexibility has more utility than higher pay. Firms need to accept that we don’t always need people to be physically present to do good work – those that get this right will have greater success in winning and keeping the best people.

Law firms are beginning to rely more heavily on professional management, freeing up lawyers to add value where it matters, rather than be distracted by administrative tasks. This trend will accelerate with the adoption of Artificial Intelligence, such as automated drafting and document review tools, reducing the amount of time you spend on low-value, repetitive tasks and freeing up time to focus on solving the most interesting and challenging legal problems.

If technology gives you opportunities to spend time with your family, then I say, “Do it!” Your career is important, but don’t lose sight of your lifetime priorities. I speak from personal experience when I say that being happy and well balanced will make you more successful at work and at home.