Where will corporate law firms be ten years from now?
Ahead of ‘Lawyers and the fourth industrial revolution’ in Birmingham this Wednesday, Pinsent Masons partner Richard Masters draws on 30 years of practice to forecast what comes next
“I suspect that the job of junior lawyers will evolve quite dramatically over the course of the next decade,” says Richard Masters, one of Pinsent Masons’ most senior partners. “But I wouldn’t expect numbers to change substantially,” adds the self-proclaimed “optimist”.
Masters, the former managing partner of McGrigors, with which Pinsents merged in 2012, notes the two years of back-to-back rises in training contracts to reach their highest level since the financial crisis as evidence of the relative health of the law firm model. “It goes against the grain of what some doomsayers have been predicting for a number of years now, and is really quite interesting,” he comments.
It’s a thought-provoking take from a partner at one of the law firms most well-known for innovation. Pinsents arguably leads the market in non-fee earning roles, with the firm employing a director of innovation and a head of research & development, alongside a host of legal knowledge engineer positions. It’s also the only firm to have built its own artificial intelligence (AI) tool. Yet, perhaps counter-intuitively in the eyes of some, it’s one of the biggest training firms in the UK, offering 72 training contracts each year across its eight UK offices.
If anything, Pinsents’ embrace of technology has helped create more work, with new clients drawn by the firm’s natural expertise in emerging areas like fintech and existing ones benefitting from a policy that sees lawyers’ time not wasted on “drudgery”. One of the Pinsents’ objectives, Masters says, “is to allow our people to concentrate on what matters”. In that sense, human qualities like excellent black letter legal skills, business savvy and an ease with people are likely to become more sought after, not less, over the years ahead.
With such attributes in mind, Masters is curious about the possibility of deploying his firm’s next generation of solicitors on social media. He muses:
Social media offers all sorts of ways of generating new clients, perhaps most obviously through the promotion of a range of free legal services, potentially involving the use of big data. Kids coming into the profession who are brave and bold enough to embrace some of the possibilities could find themselves very well-placed.
Another path of opportunity for junior lawyers is in the subsidiary businesses that some law firms have started creating. Pinsents — again a leader in this area — has three well-known spin-offs: Cerico, a cloud-based regulatory compliance company; Vario, a freelance lawyer business; and Outlaw, a legal news and analysis website. Since 2013 Masters has been the director of Cerico in a business role overseeing automation of compliance processes “that would have been unheard of ten years ago, let along 30 years ago when I began my career”. His advice to trainees who are interested in getting involved in this sort of entrepreneurial project is to be pro-active. “You’ve got to seek opportunities and make it clear to people that you want to get involved. If you sit back and wait for things you want to land in your lap you will probably be disappointed,” he says.
Management is another route that many lawyers go down. While Masters did not expect to end up where he is today, looking back at his career you can see a pattern that saw the Strathclyde University law graduate gravitate steadily towards managerial roles — first at McGrigors, and then at Pinsents where he was head of client operations for three years before taking the helm at Cerico in 2013. “Law firms still mostly look internally for their leaders,” he says, “so if you have good technical legal expertise, are respected by fellow partners and have the right leadership attributes then the opportunities arise.”
A striking feature of Masters’ career is that it has all been spent in Glasgow. With McGrigors based in the city, and Pinsents operating a policy that gives equal status to all of its offices, there has never been a reason to move. “It’s important to research the history of law firms in order to understand them,” advises Masters.
Firms like Pinsents that have developed via a series of mergers with firms that are very strong in their local market are quite different from City of London firms with no regional presence that might create new offices outside the capital to act purely as outsourcing centres. In a sense we have the best of both worlds, with excellent lawyers across the country but also an ability to move work around where that is more cost efficient.
Looking ahead, Masters sees the globalisation of law as “perhaps the biggest trend” of the next few years. In spite of Brexit and the protectionist rhetoric of President Trump, this glass half full lawyer reckons that English law’s status as the law of choice for global businesses is likely to present “wonderful opportunities for young lawyers” at firms like Pinsents that have a large international presence. He adds: “For the first time in my life we have reached a point where lawyers can move almost seamlessly across international borders. I can only see that way of operating speeding up.”
Legal Cheek’s latest event, ‘Lawyers and the fourth industrial revolution: How AI and Big Data will change legal practice — with Pinsent Masons’, takes place in Birmingham this Wednesday evening.
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