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Priorities for New Lawyers are Changing. Can the Legal Industry Keep Up?

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This article was originally published on Law.com’s Legal Tech News.

 

As the legal field continues to move forward, it is well-primed to place greater value on technological advancements, diverse leadership, and healthy work cultures over settling for the status quo.

 

Every lawyer can tell you exactly why they went into the practice of law: be it to build a career in a respected profession, to keep up a family tradition, or perhaps (sometimes to their disappointment later) because they were influenced by a Hollywood era that glorified lawyers. Whatever their reason, like many before them, today’s lawyers leave law school ready to roll up their sleeves, build trust, and carve out the reputation they need to succeed at top law firms.

Yet the legal industry these lawyers are joining is evolving, and now increasingly hosts a new cohort of professionals—those shaped by technology and innovation, and who value diversity, mentorship, and efficiency over homogeneous workplaces with minimal coaching and exhausted capacities.

Less willing to simply accept the status quo, become entrenched in administrative work, and slowly climb the corporate ladder, today’s lawyers are hungry for a better way to practice law. Adopting new business models and technologies is one step toward achieving a more productive, satisfying work environment. Other as-significant factors, such as the availability of leadership and mentorship opportunities, are at play as well.

The next generation of lawyers expect law firms to not only embrace technology, but to place increasing value on the overall healthiness of their culture as well. To do so requires dedication and commitment from firms to invest not just in technology, but in the kinds of initiatives that can empower, support, and celebrate all individual contributors—including and especially traditionally underrepresented groups like women and minorities—through inclusive programs, coaching, and diverse leadership teams.

Can the legal industry evolve quickly enough to attract and retain the next generation of legal talent? The answer is likely yes, but it won’t happen overnight.

 

Sluggish Job Growth in a Tech-Averse Field

U.S. employment in the legal industry has certainly seen its ups and downs in 2019. When job growth strengthened across multiple industries earlier this year, the legal industry faced a decline in employment. Despite small upticks throughout subsequent months, the overall average monthly job growth for 2019 in the legal industry remains well under that of 2018—to date, it has declined more than 30%.

Amid a strengthening job market, why are jobs in a generally well-respected industry being looked over in favor of other industries? One reason could be the legal industry’s notorious lack of progressiveness. The industry’s technology landscape is one such area of slow growth; its lack of diversity is another.

The legal industry’s long-standing dismissal of technology, while slowly changing, is fairly well known. While legal technology holds enormous potential for law firms, the industry as a whole has been famously slow to adopt modern technologies or meaningfully innovate on the traditional law firm business model. Why? For smaller firms, money can be tight, and solutions can be expensive.

In larger firms, the problem can be different. Partners with equity in a firm are not often inclined to invest time or capital in devising and implementing newer, faster processes and technologies. For many firms, it may simply come down to the traditional business model: it pays to be inefficient—literally. As a result, traditional law firms of all sizes have bred working environments wrought with unchecked inefficiencies, decreased productivity, and, at times, a frustrating client experience.

The general lack of adoption of technology in the legal industry leads lawyers to spend more time on administrative items and work that could easily be automated than on the actual legal advising that makes the profession fun and adds the most value to clients. These demotivating factors can all contribute to lagging career progression, burnout, and increasing industry attrition rates.

 

Examining Diversity in the Legal Industry

In addition to flagging technology adoption, the legal field is known for another issue: male-dominated workplaces that are not culturally diverse. Despite this trend in the industry at large, earlier this year, our firm promoted the three of us to managing counsel. As female lawyers tenured in our legal careers—two of us women of color—this was a career-defining opportunity to lead and grow our respective teams.

While our hard work and merit have undoubtedly gotten us here, the same career growth opportunities are often not given to other women and minority groups. After all, it’s hardly a secret that homogenous leadership and partnership remain a force to be reckoned with in the legal field.

According to Law360 Glass Ceiling report, women represent 45% of all non-partners, associates, counsel, and staff attorneys, and just 24% of all partners. What’s more, at top law firms almost 80% of equity partners are men, “showing a continuing dearth of women at the highest firm level.”

Further research from the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) finds that “men continue to dominate the top earner spots [in law firms], with 93% of firms reporting their top earner is a man and of the ten most highly compensated lawyers in the firm one or none of those top ten is a woman.”

This research also shines an even brighter—yet bleaker—light on representation of people of color, women of color, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities in the legal industry. According to the same NAWL study, people of color make up about 8% of equity partners, women of color make up only 2% of equity partners, openly LGBTQ attorneys represent only 2% of equity partners, and people with disabilities represent less than 1%.

 

Where Firms Should Prioritize for the Future

In many cases, the root causes of lagging advancements in the legal field reside in the organizational structure of law firms themselves. When it is a struggle to ignite meaningful change in a large organization—often especially difficult in a partnership structure—it can have a devastating impact on career growth and industry progression.

This issue is magnified because of the long-standing culture of fear-based relationships in law firms, in which many more senior individuals are neither receptive to feedback nor open to change. Not only do senior lawyers often have minimal time to dedicate to coaching and mentoring of junior attorneys, or to conceiving, testing, and implementing successful technology or diversity initiatives, but law firm culture can make it incredibly intimidating for newcomers to speak up and suggest changes and cultural improvements. Partners and senior lawyers therefore need to be receptive to not only hearing, but encouraging, those kinds of suggestions.

Diversity will, alongside technology, play a critical role in the future of the legal industry. The same lack of incentives that prevent law firms from investing in new technologies often prevent them from prioritizing diversity initiatives and cultural resource groups. Yet these programs and training development opportunities are the heartbeat of the industry’s future and should advance in lockstep with technology.

Diverse workplaces help ensure that there is a steady stream of unique perspectives that can help keep firms more creative and dynamic. For the legal industry to truly progress, it must actively build out more diverse, inclusive law firms. A few ways to help shape more ethnically and gender diverse workplaces include:

  • Employee resource groups for underrepresented communities that are enthusiastically supported by leadership; and
  • Career development and partner pathway programs to specifically help women and other minorities rise in their field.

 

Together, the Future Grows Brighter (and More Efficient)

The good news is that the legal industry is slowly but surely becoming more receptive to the benefits of evolving its traditional approach to the business and practice of law. Legal technologies continue to offer increased efficiencies to law firms, should they elect to adopt them, and the call for diversity and other cultural improvements within firms and the legal industry more broadly is on the rise. Our promotions are prime examples of these trends at a law firm that is also notable for its legal technology and innovative business model.

A new generation of lawyers, with a new set of expectations, bodes even more promising improvements in the future for this slow-to-progress industry. As the legal field continues to move forward, it is well-primed to place greater value on technological advancements, diverse leadership, and healthy work cultures over settling for the status quo.

Those players in the legal industry who are able to recognize prevailing industry trends now will be in the best position to act on them. These early movers’ adoption of and improvement on the technologies and diversity and cultural initiatives of today will benefit not just them but the future of the industry itself, ensuring that law students will continue rolling up their sleeves to join our venerable industry for generations to come.

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Annie represents a wide variety of emerging growth companies, covering a broad range of general corporate and transactional matters, and other daily operational challenges. Annie has represented startups from incorporation to exit, including being seconded at Square, Inc. during its IPO, and has counseled clients through transactional work totaling over $1B in private markets and $2.5B in public markets. Prior to joining Atrium, Annie worked at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, California, where in addition to practicing law she collaborated on internal initiatives and firm-wide strategy for legal tech.

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As Managing Counsel of Atrium’s General Corporate Counsel group, Natasha co-leads a practice that advises startup and developing stage companies on mergers and acquisitions, debt and equity financing, venture financing, and corporate law matters. Natasha brings a unique range and depth of experience, having worked in a combination of law firms, business consulting firms, and startups in both Canada and the U.S. including Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw and Pittman, Ernst & Young, and ForgeRock. Her experience ranges from tax planning strategy to cross-border financing to general corporate work. Natasha is an active leader inside and outside the office and is involved in several cultural and professional development initiatives and organizations. At Atrium, she co-chairs Shades (a black employee resource group) and is a mentor to many junior team members. In the larger professional community, she serves on the board of Leading Women in Technology, a non-profit that empowers women to grow their knowledge, leadership skills, and networks for greater professional and personal impact. In her downtime, Natasha enjoys fitness activities including CrossFit, running full and half marathons, and competing in Iron Man. She also enjoys traveling, and particularly enjoys the culture and cuisine of Italy and Spain. Natasha received her J.D. at Queen's University Faculty of Law and her undergraduate degree at York University.

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Named one of The Recorder's 2018 Women Leaders in Tech Law, Nicole is Managing Counsel of Atrium’s Financing practice focusing on venture capital investment deals, mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, and general corporate work. As a key legal advisor to many of Atrium’s clients, her investment deals has a cumulative value in excess of $1 billion. In addition to her legal work, she’s an integral leader of the company who plays a big part in building the culture. This includes co-chairing Shades, Atrium’s black employee resource group, among other committees. Prior to joining the company, she practiced at DLA Piper and Cooley supporting both emerging startups and venture capital investors. Her experience includes working on major initial public offerings for leading Silicon Valley companies in internet services, social media, robotics, and more. She eventually made the switch over to Atrium to think outside of the box and help deliver legal services more efficiently through the use of modern technologies. In her downtime, she loves traveling, trying new wines, and going to Miami with her family for sun all-year around. (Their next destinations include Paris and London.) Nicole received her J.D. from Santa Clara University and Bachelor’s from the University of California, Riverside.