Who should teach young lawyers the skills they need for the future?

To what degree is it a responsibility of the law firm to help young lawyers getting ready and teach them the skills they need for the future? We contacted Thomas Aertgeerts to ask him just that.

August 31, 2020

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Who should teach young lawyers the skills they need for the future?

A new world requires new skills. When In 2015, The World Economic Forum issued a list of the ten skills you need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution, they highlighted abilities such as complex problem-solving, coordination, and negotiation. Just five years after, the list changed and is now topped by skills such as creativity and emotional intelligence. The requirements are constantly changing. In fact, that could lead one to believe that flexibility and the ability to adapt in fact trump all the fine traits mentioned on that list. It is rather your ability to cope with the accelerating and ever-changing world that defines your success, not the specific personality traits you were born with or trained to in your education.

If you work in the media industry, you will have known this for years already. The same goes for retail, service and even the financial sector. Despite very early warnings from Richard Susskind in his book Tomorrow's Lawyers that predicts fundamental and irreversible changes in the world of law, many legal professionals perceive themselves as somehow above these trends. As if legal professionals are immune to change and do not have to adapt to changes. As most readers of Legal Tech Weekly know, all of this is changing, but the big question is who is going to be responsible for teaching legal professionals those new skills? Should it be the law schools? Private initiatives? The lawyers themselves? Or even legal consumers?

In an opinion published in the ABA Journal earlier this month, Thomas Aertgeerts, co-founder of the legal tech company Aeco, asked whether his law firm had prepared him for success in the next decade? "As an individual professional, I wasn't being prepared for the next 40 years of my career (or more, who knows how our pensions will evolve)," he writes and encourages young lawyers to begin their own legal innovation journey by gaining a better understanding of the current evolutions, connect and share experiences with early adopters and experiment with their own projects.

But to what degree is it a responsibility of the law firm to help young lawyers getting ready for what lies ahead? We contacted Thomas Aertgeerts to ask him just that.

A personal experience
Aertgeerts studied law at the University of Leuven and specialised in tax law at the London School of Economics, before he began a rather traditional legal career as a tax lawyer in Luxembourg and later, Belgium. Working at a prestigious law firm and learning from renowned lawyers was not enough for Aertgeerts: "I realised early in my career that one of the main drivers behind how I work is that it has to be done as efficiently as possible, which is not easy in a law firm. I think every lawyer has a feeling, once a day, once a week or at least once a month, that they are reinventing the wheel, that they are doing something somebody must have done before. That kept chasing me," he says.

After a few more years of frustration, Aertgeerts had an aha-experience: "I thought, do I really want to do this kind of work in 2-3 years, and the answer was clearly no. I make this distinction between creation and production. Creating is the intellectual input you insert in a certain structure or document. Everything else is production; writing stuff down. In law firms, you have using intelligent people spending time on checking references and placing commas - nitty-gritty details that are important but not highly intellectual. That is annoying and even more if you start considering how it could be done," Aertgeerts explains.

He then started to discover the growing possibilities and evolutions in legal tech and legal innovation: "You start dreaming how it could look like and you compare this to how it looks right now. There is such a big difference.This realisation was such a mental switch that it became hard to focus on my day to day job as a lawyer," he says. Aertgeerts then landed a job within legal innovation in the Belgian branch of KPMG, where he learned a lot from working in multidisciplinary teams. But more wants more, and he reached the ceiling where he was not able to influence the business strategy at the level he wanted to. He finally made the jump and started his own legal tech company with his two brothers, who are, in the true spirit of multidisciplinarity, not lawyers. Together they created a state-of-the-art tech tool for Belgium tax laws and they also advice law firms with their future strategy.

In just 5-7 years, he experienced the full journey: from a traditional lawyer in a conservative structure to a legal tech entrepreneur. But nobody ever prepared him for that journey: "What bothered me and prompted me to write the article is that nobody explains students and young lawyers what is going on, which fundamental changes are taking place and where they can learn new skills.. Nobody is really teaching the next generation to be a new type of lawyer," says Aertgeerts.

Who should teach young lawyers the skills they need in the future?

Ideally, how should it have worked? Who should have been responsible for this training?
"There are five big groups; universities, law firms or legal departments. Then there are the bar associations, the individual lawyer as you are always responsible for yourself, and the 5th category is a combination of people helping each other - a community. An example, I regularly give is a large Belgian telecom provider that recently decided to fire almost 2000 people gradually, but at the same time rehire 1000 people with different profiles. Why? They arrived at a point where they did not have a choice because consumers were asking for different services and competitors were outperforming them. They didn't re-school or convert their employees, they just let them do the same type of work and gradually, year by year they became less useful for the company. If you don't interfere in time, the only remaining option is to hire new people. The same thing is going to happen in the legal industry. At some point, lawyers will be replaced by other profiles,“

Which skills should legal professionals learn then?
"The most important ones are process thinking, project management, creativity and a business mind-set. For those who read the Susskind books; it's fairly clear that we will need more technical profiles and more hybrid profiles. Even today, we know what will be necessary - that is the frustrating part. We are leaving some people behind.

But what is that the responsibility of the law firm? Their goal is to profit like any other company, while it is your job to plan your career?
"From an ethical and moral perspective, it's the job of every company to have a broader perspective on how to define profit. Economic profit can be expressed in terms of money and market share. Profit equally entails a social component that can be expressed in terms of the people you help, the lives you improve, the sustainable value you create and so on. But even if you only consider the strictly economic meaning of profit, law firms that truly invest in their people will benefit in the long term.. Law firms that invest in the long term now might grow exponentially in the future. If you look at the typical business model of a law firm, their only option is linear growth because you have to hire more lawyers to do more work which in turn increases your costs., If you use technology to your advantage, you can have exponential growth. If you want that, you have to invest in people and skills. You have to try something new aside from the legal advisory business model where you charge by the hour."

So what should law firms do practically?
"That's a good question. The first part is to start creating awareness. Things that are logical to you and me are blind spots for others. People have to realise that things are going to change and that we are in a transition period. Secondly, I believe in learning by doing. Use your current practice as a laboratory. A lot of things can be optimised, both internally and client-facing. Use the enthusiasm of young lawyers and let them experiment. Third, you have to start hiring people from different backgrounds to make multidisciplinary teams with legal engineers, young lawyers and technical people. Working together with non-lawyers is how I truly learned. I sometimes joke that my brothers taught me more about law than law school. Because they think differently, they got me out of the legal bubble I was in. The work that is done by this multidisciplinary team, in turn, helps to create awareness, "explains Aertgeerts.

That said, he also believes that law schools and bar associations have a more progressive role to play, and it is still the responsibility of every single individual to be ready to adapt to the so-called fourth industrial revolution. So what is his advice to other young lawyers out there?

"The awareness part is something you can do for yourself. There are lots of articles and podcasts, so it's easy to be aware of the problems. Also, don't hesitate to get in touch with other legal innovators, most of them will be more than happy to give tips and guide you on your own journey. Every converted lawyer counts since I strongly believe in the upwards pressure. More people in law firms should push the partners to experiment and form small innovation groups with allies," he concludes.

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