Created with Osborne Clarke

If the only constant is change … lawyers should embrace it

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By Alex Wade on

But don’t underestimate human skills like being able to listen to and empathise with clients, Osborne Clarke managing partner Ray Berg tells Alex Wade

Just a few years ago being a cab driver in London meant spending three to four years to master ‘The Knowledge’ — a test which was introduced in 1865. Along came SatNav, Google maps and Uber, and suddenly almost anyone could ferry a passenger from A to B. What price a similar revolution in the legal profession?

“Technology is undoubtedly changing the role of lawyers,” says Ray Berg, the UK managing partner of Osborne Clarke, a firm with an international reputation for its engagement with the technological Zeitgeist. “But although technological change will disrupt the legal profession, it shouldn’t be feared. In fact, there’s only one sensible response for lawyers to technology: to embrace it.”

Osborne Clarke has had a dedicated ‘Smart City’ practice since 2014, and has been advising on buzzwords such as the internet of things, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), urban informatics, digital health and fintech ever since the technology underpinning them was invented. For Berg, the rationale is simple:

“We need to keep abreast of technological changes and understand them, because by doing so we can make our clients’ lives easier and provide better service. Lawyers can’t exist in a vacuum. They have to know about the impact that technology is having on the way we live our lives.”

For Berg, who qualified as a solicitor in 1992 and became Osborne Clarke’s UK managing partner on 1 January 2015, embracing technological change isn’t just good for clients. It’s good for the legal profession, too. “I can remember, early in my career, spending eight hours a day on due diligence in transactions, marking up documents by hand,” he recalls. “Now there are AI programmes that can manage much of the process. The result is redeployment, not unemployment, and it’s a positive, exciting thing. In 10 years’ time, I expect all of our people will understand coding, but also, as technology grows and continues to influence the way we work, that they will have more time to concentrate on tasks that require human input.”

One of which, says Berg, is listening:

“Being able to listen well is the best skill a lawyer can have. A good lawyer has the ability to listen and empathise with a client, then make an assessment as to what legal solutions are needed.”

Shortly after qualifying with a City firm, Berg went on secondment with a major corporation to the US and Central America. He spent 18 months overseas, and joined Osborne Clarke in 2001. Curious by nature, he soon gravitated to digital business, and has seen first-hand the ways in which technology has influenced society and the work of lawyers. What does he think of what’s been billed as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, the fusion, via technology, of the physical, digital and human worlds?

Osborne Clarke's vac scheme and TC application deadline is on Monday 15 January

“There is a lot of talk about how we’re in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution but I don’t think revolutions ever really begin and end,” says Berg. “They’re ongoing. If there is a Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s building on the digital revolution that began in the last century. There are so many incredible things happening, from the advent of driverless cars to 3D printing and the ever-greater use of robotics, but I don’t think an end-date can be put on these developments. They’ll be refined, and other things will come along. The trick, for lawyers, is being adaptable and moving with changes, not resisting them.”

The legal profession is changing in a cultural sense, too, says Berg: “Careers are less linear than they used to be. At Osborne Clarke, for example, we’re very receptive to graduates with non-law degrees, or good commercial experience. We like people who can demonstrate a creative, but also practical, approach to problems.”

What about that mainstay of legal life since time immemorial — the office? Berg says that many people enjoy the collegiate sense of working life that comes from an office environment, but equally, that “young people now expect to be able to work flexibly, so we often adopt an unallocated desk model in our offices.”

Read the Legal Cheek profile of Osborne Clarke

Marketing is important, too. “In my early days in the profession, no one ever said ‘go out and sell the business’; now this is part of a modern lawyer’s skillset,” says Berg. “Anyone looking to succeed in the law today needs to understand this and, as with technology, embrace it. So, too, financial metrics and things like fintech and Bitcoin. There may be regulatory uncertainty in the early days of the new payment systems, but they’re here to stay.”

For Berg, then, today’s tech-driven revolution represents an opportunity for lawyers rather than the sound of their death-knell. But in one way, Osborne Clarke’s forward-thinking managing partner is resolutely set in his ways. “I grew up supporting Tottenham Hotspur and watch the team whenever I can,” he says. “There’s not a single thing that’ll change that.”

Osborne Clarke's vac scheme and TC application deadline is on Monday 15 January

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