Same old...or not?

By Jim Rossiter Students 2012

Globalization, technology and uncertain economic are altering  the legal services marketplace as never before. Four lawyers with very different backgrounds share their thoughts about the skills you need to succeed.

Same old...or not? Illustration by Enrico Varrasso

Moderator Jim Rossiter: All right, let us jump right in. If I am a student, I am just sweating readings, papers, exams, moots. Should I add “a changing legal profession” to the list of interests or can this wait? 

Jordan Kent Brown: It’s not something that you necessarily need to put on the front burner, but it is something that you need to consider. You have to figure out what you are all about and what you want to do with your life. There are a lot of different things you can do with a law degree and not necessarily everybody that graduates from law school will like to do the same thing. 

Kevin West: Thinking about it in law school is important because that is where you have a lot of opportunities to meet people, meet practitioners, speak with professors, speak with your fellow students, explore different ideas and try to find the mentors to help guide you through that process, as well. 

Rossiter: Is it true that the profession is changing? 

Warren Smith: Is the nature of technology and the way clients are consuming legal services really different today than it was three years ago? There is definitely more change going on today. Un­fortunately, it also makes for good copy to portray it as a radical change. I’m not sure it is as radical as some of the columns I read make it out to be. 

Stéphanie Bachand: I am now in my second year as an associate at Norton Rose, and I have already witnessed at least one major change in the gold services profession that is the globalization of law firms with the merger of Ogilvy Renault with Norton Rose last June 2011, and more recently with Macleod Dixon in January 2012. This now allows firms to offer legal services to clients almost anywhere in the world. From the perspective of an associate it is also very exciting as it creates new opportunities to work on certain files with colleagues from other offices. 

Rossiter: So change has been driven by technology and globalization. Are there other trends driving change?

Smith: In the last 10 years, a couple of things have really come to the fore. One is the introduction of the income partner. Virtually 100 per cent of firms now require an additional step through to equity and I don’t think that is going away anytime soon. If anything, the path is going to get longer. It causes people more stress because it is no longer six or seven years to partnership. It is probably now looking more like 10 before they arrive at that doorstep. It changes how people think about their career. It gets very difficult to motivate people to willingly put in that kind of time if they do not have certainty of success on the other end. I think that does impact the delivery of legal services because it changes the kind of people that are prepared to put the time in at those firms.

Rossiter: So, what you are talking about is change that comes from the economy?

Smith: Absolutely. Firms can only make more money in a number of different ways. They can drive up their rates, cut down their costs or they can increase their leverage and I think the market is telling them that there is not a lot more room left to drive up their rates. I don’t know how much they can really cut back their costs. I know some firms have looked at that in terms of reducing the floor plate or their office space size; you can do some creative things, but it is incremental. If you are at a firm and you want to continue to see [profit] increases, one of the inevitable conclusions is to try and stretch out the timeline of those who are in the leverage position of the firm. I think that is what is happening now. 

Rossiter: If the economy rebounds, what happens? 

Smith: I don’t know. I think that‘s one of those things that firms are going to be reluctant to undo because it does result in a higher overall profitability. But the market is an efficient creature. If a firm figures out that they have got an abundance of work and an ability to pay, it might try to change the game by saying, “Yeah, you know what, partnership is on the table again on a more expedited basis at our firm.” I would expect to see that more in boutiques as opposed to large firms because they will use it as a drawing card to pull talent away from the big firms.

West: It’s more than just the economy.  A structural shift has been happening for a while. Ask the more senior practitioners who have been in firms for a long time. When they started out, the attitude then was that you joined a firm and that is where you would be practising for life. You would be mentored through your junior years and you were expected to be there. There was very little lateral movement among partners at firms and now firms take a different approach and are more business-like. Now there is a lot more mobility. Law firms are more fluid and dynamic and, also, the younger lawyers look at joining law firms more as a short-term opportunity than a long-term career path. One of the firms has coined [the term] ‘tourists’ [for] the ones who come for a couple of years to get the experience of working in a big firm and then move on to something that better suits their lifestyle. 

Rossiter: What about social media? How is that changing the profession? 

Smith: Social media has really served as an equalizer in the market. I have watched a number of lawyers really pull away from the pack early because they figured out that if they can build up a successful Twitter feed and get the key stakeholders and the investor relations people following them [it] actually beats a path to their door that would have never been available to them in a previous generation. 

Rossiter: Stephanie, you are the most recent call in the group. You have articled and now you are an associate at a large law firm. What about your peers out there, are they generally doing the same thing as you or are they exploring new and other opportunities?

Bachand: Some work in large law firms. Some work for the federal government and some work for immigration lawyers. One of my peers just launched her own legal practice as an independent lawyer offering services in family law. Also, a lot of my peers are not in Montreal; they are practising in Toronto or in other countries. Some are working for international tribunals, so I think the landscape is very wide and there are a lot of opportunities out there.

Rossiter: West, in your case, you began in big law firms, but then you founded SkyLaw, which describes itself as having an “innovative law firm structure.”  Tell us about that.

West: I practised at Sullivan & Cromwell for five and a half years in New York and Australia, then was a partner at Davies in Toronto for five years and just over a year ago I started my own firm. We are three lawyers now and we focus on sophisticated corporate transactions. One of the things that we identified was that there was a growing need and an underserved market of smaller companies that needed good corporate lawyer advice. They were growing quickly and were not at the stage where they could bring all of their work to a big firm, but needed big-firm advice. We thought that by setting up our own platform, we would be able to serve that market very well.

"Social media has really served as an equalizer in the market. I have watched a number of lawyers really pull away from the pack early..."

Rossiter: When you use the word ‘platform’, what are you talking about?

West: The platform is the technology that we have. It is no longer necessary to invest millions of dollars in your technology; we are able to set up our platform at much lower rate than what a big firm would pay for. We all have Apple-based products. We have cloud computing because that is a very efficient way of collaborating on matters. We also have the ability to market very efficiently. We have created our own library and have access to it. There is no longer a need to have a large law library because so much is readily accessible on the internet. We have connections to the people where we can get the precedents and the information we need when we need it. 

Rossiter: So if I am a student and I have determined that I want to practise law, but have ruled out the law firm structure or the in-house or government employment model, what are the alternatives for me?

Smith: I encourage students to think about the next step after law school as not being a one-year articling period. I encourage them to think of it more as three or four years. A lot of lawyers would say that the critical skill set is not formed during articles. You probably need a couple of years to really understand a given area. Try to get through that for a couple of years and then a lot more doors will open up.

Rossiter: What skills should students and new lawyers work on to best take advantage of a changing profession?

West: One of the great skills at every stage is networking. Make sure that you stay connected to people that you meet in law school because the people who are sitting beside you in class now, not too long from now, will be the decision-makers in government and at firms. You are going to be happy you kept in touch with them. And networking is important within a firm. The firm may want to slot you in somewhere because it is best for them, but it is important for you to be focused on what your interests are, where you see your career path and take control of your own career path. Get out and find good mentors to help you understand what the options are. 

Bachand: I also would add lawyering. Basically, students must learn how to be lawyers, especially if they are not going to article or practise in a big law firm.  In a big law firm like Norton Rose, for example, you do have this training and you do learn how to be a lawyer. Another important skill that students should develop is knowledge of various legal traditions. Being from Quebec, myself, I am obviously thinking about the civil law and common law systems, which co-exist in Quebec and in Canada and are among the most important legal traditions worldwide. Knowledge of both civil and common law will help students better understand concepts that they will apply here. They will also be in a better position to offer their services worldwide to clients in other countries and offer services of higher quality. 

Rossiter: So the old-fashioned skills are the ones that will still best equip you as you move forward in your career: networking, lawyering, knowledge of legal traditions. Is that a view shared by everyone?

West: When I was at Dalhousie last week, Justice [Thomas] Crom­well of the Supreme Court was speaking. He made a great point: What makes a great lawyer is the ability to exercise good judgment. He encouraged students to try and find mentors and try and develop that skill to be able to take a bigger picture approach, not always approach things from a textbook-law school perspective, but to work in the real world with real world problems and give advice that is sound in judgment.

Brown: The other thing is that regardless of whether you are working in private practice or wherever, you have to be adaptable and open-minded. We have been talking a lot about change here today. If you are not open-minded about working within the changing structures or working differently or whatever the case might be, somebody else will fill that role that you would otherwise be jumping into. 

Rossiter: What other advice can you gave me in a nutshell?

Bachand: While in law school, get as much practical training as you can. For example, through legal clinic programs, learn how to be a good counsel. Through trial advocacy classes or through moot competitions or even though clerkships, learn how to prepare a trial, conduct examinations, cross-examinations. Also, seek opportunities to develop entrepreneurial skills. Get involved in student associations where you will have to manage a project and respect a budget and use marketing tools and work as a team. Those are all skills that are going to help them through their legal careers. 

West: Take control of your own career destiny. Figure out what it is you want to do and try and pursue it. The only way to figure out what it is you want to do is to get out there and talk with people and try different things. It comes back to what we were talking about before with networking: Finding good mentors and reading about what is going on in the profession. 

Moderated by Jim Rossiter. Illustration by Enrico Varrasso. Sponsored by - Commandité par CBIA · AABC.

This roundtable has been edited and condensed for publication. 

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