‘This generation of lawyers has been unbelievably lucky…the next will pay the price unless they heed the signs’

By Karl Chapman on

Karl Chapman, the chief executive of one of the most well-known new legal businesses, Riverview Law, outlines the skills that he reckons future lawyers will need to survive in a changing profession.

I would love to say that, actually, I knew then what I know now. That I was so insightful all those years ago as a law student at Birmingham University in the 1980s — by the way, what a great time that was, the New Romantics, Pink Floyd, big hair, 8 hours of lectures a week, Hello Louise — that I realised just how important it was to gain coal-face, commercial and business experience before returning to the law. That I foresaw the alternative business structure (ABS) shake-up 30 years later and as a result decided to go into business and commerce first before beating a path back to legal services.

Well, to quote a prominent politician of that time, if I claimed that I would be being “economical with the actualité”!

It’s just a happy and lucky accident that the experience of starting and running two businesses over the last 25 years (one in training and recruitment outsourcing, and another in human resources outsourcing) has proved the perfect training ground for re-entering the legal market now. A market that is at a major and fundamental inflection point that will see future lawyers require different skills from those of a lot of the golden we-believe-our-own-PR-but-in-reality just-got-lucky partner generation of recent times. They say that my parents’ generation were lucky having final salary pensions and lots of job opportunities. Well, this generation of lawyers has been unbelievably lucky with its timing…and the next generation will pay the price unless they change their expectations and heed the signs.

Indeed, some of the big themes from business and commerce that are most relevant to future lawyers have nothing to do with law, but they have everything to do with the successful practice of law in the new market emerging. They are common-sense principles that have been applied in most other sectors of the economy, excluding much of the public sector, for decades. The future will see legal businesses and large organisations pay a premium for pragmatic, IT literate, numerate and commercially aware advisers who can communicate succinctly, play as part of a team and problem solve…oh, and who just happen to have a legal qualification (not necessarily achieved via university!). The skills they will need include:

1. An ability to be proactive and pre-emptive: lawyers tend to be reactive, responding to client requirements. But increasingly they will need to take the initiative too, demonstrating that their input pre-empts future risks and costs.

2. IT and social media savviness. Legal businesses and in-house functions will need to invest significantly in automation if they’re to drive efficiency, improve processes and transform their relationships with their customers.

3. Management information capabilities: lawyers will need to be able to capture, interpret and apply data and trend analysis to their clients benefit. Customers take it as read that lawyers know the law, so lawyers need to ask themselves what other value-add can they bring.

4. A customer service ethos: lawyers really will need to pay more than lip service to building customer-focused service delivery and pricing models.

Returning to the 1980s for a moment: I really wish I’d known that many of my friends would end up as senior and managing partners in law firms. Given what we’re doing now I’d have kept in even closer contact with them than I have. Which brings me to one further really big point of advice for aspiring and young lawyers: even in a fast moving, social media-enabled world, never ever underestimate the power of relationships and personal networks. It’s amazing how often these come into play and, with hindsight, I wish I’d invested more time in maintaining my legal network.

Now, many lawyers will be tutting and shaking their heads reading much of the above, thinking “poor chap, how sad, he’s well off the pace, we’ve been doing this for years”. Well, I’m delighted with such responses. Most law firms and lawyers fail to realise that their benchmark when considering the above is other law firms, when it should be other markets and businesses. That’s what new entrants bring to the party, and it’s what customers are used to.

To (mis)quote another 1980s politician, “You tut if you want to, the market is for turning”.

Karl Chapman is the chief executive of Riverview Law.