THE legal discipline is evolving, turning the spotlight on law school programs, the organisational cultures of law firms, and the skillsets of legal practitioners.

Pressure to change is coming from all directions – clients are demanding different things as the profession also morphs in a demographic sense, according to the Australasian Law Teachers Association (ALTA). 

The evolution of the industry was the focal point of the ALTA conference held at Bond University, where representatives from more than 40 Australian and international institutions debated the skills required to succeed in the ever-changing profession.

The two-day conference was themed Thriving in Turbulent Times: Re-Imagining the Roles of Law, Law Schools and Lawyers.

Deputy dean of Bond University’s Faculty of Law, Professor Nick James (pictured right), says traditional roles and structures in legal education and legal practice are being questioned.

“It is a turbulent time for the discipline of law,” James says.

“Law schools are being subjected to ever-increasing levels of regulation and pressure to change what and how they teach.

“Law students are questioning the value of their law degree as they find it harder to secure jobs, and lawyers are being forced to rethink the way they practice law and approach legal problems.”

However, James believes this crisis presents an opportunity to go one better and reimagine the roles of the law, law schools and lawyers to recreate the profession.

Special counsel with Norton Rose Fullbright Australia and former Queensland Law Society (QLS) president, Greg Vickery (pictured below left), was a speaker at the conference who paints a clear portrait of what he deems to be the sought-after lawyer of tomorrow. 

He proposes that lawyers will need to be available for consultation around-the-clock and become more commercially savvy.

“The law and basic communication, research and reasoning skills have always been instilled in students, but the message coming back from practice is that we also need to teach students business skills,” says Vickery.

“Lawyers need to be able to manage client expectations, and provide commercially-rooted advice in the place of abstract legal advice.”

In addition to Vickery, the conference heard from more than 10 other speakers, who were in different camps for some topics but banded together for others.

Whether lawyers will be billing more or less hours in the future was debated, those banking on less hours citing the rise of corporate counsel positions and women in law necessitating more flexibility.

However, the lawyer as a straight-talking businessperson was almost universally agreed upon, as touched on earlier by Greg Vickery.

In keeping with this, Nick James says that many of the speakers emphasised that clients are increasingly seeking firm and practical solutions from legal professionals.

“There was a strong theme that clients today want to hear firm and commercially realistic recommendations from their lawyer about what they should do, rather than being presented with multiple options and no clear guidance," says James.

“The client doesn’t want pages and pages of detailed legal reasoning; they just want to be given clear and practical advice.

“This is why an astute business mind is becoming more important in the legal profession, and why law schools need to rethink what it is they are teaching law students to be able to do."

James says some of the delegates spoke of the need for greater emphasis on innovative thinking in the profession, which goes hand-in-hand with developing better business skills.

Law firms can encourage innovation, but law schools may be better positioned to drive this change from the bottom-up.

While teaching occupational skills is still critical, James says soft skills training is equally important.

What may help is that the majority of the current student population are in the Generation Y bracket, which has been tipped as one of the most entrepreneurial-inclined generations yet

“We heard from the speakers that law students need to be taught how to produce creative, innovative and practical solutions to legal problems, rather than adopting the traditional ‘issue-law-application-conclusion’ approach.

“This is an entirely different way of teaching law students how to think, but necessary so they will have the skills to cope with the fast-changing legal environment.”

In light of this, James draws on a key quote from one of the ALTA delegates, Professor Stephen Mayson, who has advised law firms around the world for more than 30 years on strategy, economics, ownership and valuation from his base in the United Kingdom:

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

This, it seems, sums up the legal environment that currently stands at the crossroads of tradition and innovation.

What skills do you think will be critical for tomorrow's legal practitioner? Contact Brisbane Legal with your expert opinion.

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