Things to watch at law firms in the next 3 – 5 years

The current climate has students and lawyers thinking about one thing – COVID-19. While this is a situation that is affecting everyone, there are other important topics that lawyers should watch out for in the next 3-5 years that will have a vast impact on the legal sector.

  1. The extenuating cybersecurity risks that firms could face both internally and for clients

The recent news that the UK government believes there is credible evidence that Russia tried to interfere in the 2014 Scottish Referendum (yet have actively avoided looking into the same with the 2016 Brexit Referendum), and the Russian interference in the 2016 USA presidential election (which led to 12 Russian nationals being indicted for their part in this), have shown that there may be a threat to law firms and their clients from external vindictive sources. 

Hacking is becoming more easily available to society and the increase in people purchasing VPNs (Virtual Private Network), which allow you to operate from a different IP address anywhere in the world apart from your current private IP address, have created a huge risk to cybersecurity. The idea that a client’s case could be severely damaged, or a law firms’ inner workings could be publicised as a result of hackers is becoming an increasingly real threat to firms, with multiple firms having become victim to a cyberattack. 

New York celebrity law firm Grubman Shire Mieselas & Sacks PC, whose clients include Mike Tyson and Drake, fell victim to a $42 million ransomware attack after hacking group Sodinokibi/REvil stole and auctioned off over 700GB of client information. Attacks like this can cause irreparable damage to a firm’s reputation and, potentially, destroy a firm, so law firms will be looking to increase the level of security they currently have on client files. 

2. Helping clients navigate an increasingly nationalist global economy 

A paper Early Warning Signals: Winners and Losers in the Global Race for Talent revealed that international applications to schools in the United States are down 13.7% from 2018. Roughly 47% of those who were surveyed stated that the political climate was the deciding factor in deciding not to apply, with 37% stating safety concerns. 

As more countries are regressing into or becoming more of a nationalist state, such as Poland’s right wing leadership, and the rise of dangerous far right groups across the European Union that 1 in 6 Europeans now vote for, the worry is that Europe’s stable business ecosystem could be at risk if these populist parties gain more power and implement restrictive policies on the distribution of knowledge, innovation and business activity, thereby potentially cutting law firms’ revenue as clients look for alternative means of getting business done.

There is a fear that the EU’s four freedoms (movement of goods, capital, services and labour)  which have been beneficial to business, reflected in transnational ‘just-in-time’ supply chains and rising levels of internal trade, will begin to crumble as member states start to divide amongst each other due to the general polarisation of politics, which is being exacerbated by social media.

  1. Staying ahead of innovation that is impacting firms and clients 

Legal technology is becoming a hot topic for a vast amount of people in the legal sector, with esteemed lawyers Mark Cohen and Richard Susskind having recently finished a 4-part webinar series on legal technology and the impact it may have, titled ‘The Uncertain Decade. The recent Legal Cheek Virtual Vacation Scheme saw a group of legal technologists come together to discuss the rise in firms using AI software for document assembly in the space of a few hours in lieu of a trainee or associate spending potential days doing the same work alone. There is worry that firms will begin to substitute actual trainees for AI software, however this does not appear to be the case. 

The main issue currently is whether legal tech will take a battering as COVID-19 causes firms to reassess the importance of various parts of the workplace, including paying for external legal tech, in a bid to prevent profits from falling too much. Currently, the situation is in an unknown place as the pandemic is unlike anything seen before, however, it is believed that a slight dip in the use of legal tech will occur, and then pick up as a faster pace once life in the UK begins to return to a more normal situation.

  1. Actively promoting diversity and fair representation at senior levels of law firms 

This is becoming a progressively discussed situation, especially with the current Black Lives Matters protests going on around the globe. BAME lawyers are continuously underrepresented at the highest levels of firms despite attempts by firms this year to try to fix the issue. The idea of positive discrimination (in which BAME candidates would be considered over non-BAME candidates) has been discussed by lawyers such as former Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, however as has been seen with the discrimination case against Cheshire Police by Mr. Furlong (a white male) because they implemented a positive discrimination plan (aiming to increase the number of BAME/female/LGBT+/disabled officers in the police force), this can backfire rapidly. The main areas to look for at a law firm that states to be diverse and open to all candidates are:

  1. Whether they are truly aiming for proper diversity by way of promotion of more BAME, LGBT+, female and disabled candidates to senior associate and partner status, 
  2. How they deal with complaints about their employees being out of line (as seen with the Freeths partner who rather horrifically used a homophobic slur when talking to a gay trainee), 
  3. The initiatives and schemes, be it current on incoming, that look to support students from the aforementioned groups and help them get into the legal sector; and
  4. How the firms have reacted to the BLM protests. As has been seen, some very well-known firms failed in responding to students’ criticism of staying silent on this serious issue and remained silent despite priding themselves on certain BAME initiatives. In order to be a law firm that is truly diverse, they must address the issues that affect their very own BAME lawyers. Doing so shows others that their initiatives are less for impact and more for show and publicity, which defeats the purpose of having these initiatives in the first place.

While COVID-19 and the current recession are still vast areas that will affect us all for the next 5-10 years and beyond, it is these areas that will have a similar impact on applicants and those choosing who they want to make a training contract for.

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