A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the evolution of the legal professionals described in Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers. I suggested that, at least as far as the demand for lawyers in the legal market is concerned, we might need some middle ground between the current state, today’s lawyers, and Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers. I called this middle ground “this afternoon’s lawyers.” In this post I’ll sketch out a few characteristics of this afternoon’s lawyers, some skills that, at least in my opinion, should be a nearer term focus than trying to build Susskindian Online Dispute Resolution Practitioners or Legal Management Consultants (with all due respect).
I’ve written about professional agility before but I’m struck by what am important skill this is. I view agility in one’s career almost as a version of professional or skills arbitrage. Though I know I’ve got some arbitrage nerds out there for those of you with a “life” (as my 13 year old would suggest) here’s a quick definition: Arbitrage is a term used most often in finance to refer to “the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset.” TLDR: it’s the recognition that a given asset is more valuable in one market than another. Professional arbitrage (at least on a personal level), then, is the personal recognition that one’s skills, while valued for one price in one market or in one role may be just as value or even more valuable in another market or another role. Like traditional arbitrage, professional arbitrage is not easy. First, it requires an understanding of the asset – that’d be your professional skills. That’s a self-awareness that’s harder to develop than one might think. And the topic of my recent mastermind groups. Next, professional arbitrage requires a deep understanding of the market into which you’re going to sell. Buy low in one market, sell high in another may seem incredibly easy. It’s not. The reason for the price difference is precisely because the buyers in the new market have not yet recognized the potential value of the asset from the other market. The arbitrageur must work to understand the the buyer’s needs and how the asset she is looking to sell could address those needs.
This afternoon’s agile lawyer is constantly scanning the horizon, looking for buyers whose needs might be met by their skills. Once that opportunity for arbitrage emerges, this afternoon’s lawyer is as comfortable engaging the buyer in a marketing or sales conversation about the arbitrage opportunity as he was in researching the opportunity and the prospect.
And that’s a perfect opportunity to talk about the second characteristic of this afternoon’s lawyers: sales. I’ve talked about the need for sales for lawyers as well. The inspiration for my company’s name (and my Twitter handle) is Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind. In it Pink identifies three forces that are reshaping the world of work: Asia, automation, and abundance. We’ll leave the first two for another day and focus on how sales applies to abundance. Pink defines abundance as the sheer amount of information and stuff which flood our lives today. Professional success today requires offering something meaningful and notable in an age of abundance. Personally, I believe that the peace of mind that the expertise of a trained legal professional can offer is absolutely relevant in an age of abundance. And, I believe that this will be increasingly true as the American economy becomes more sophisticated. However, even though consumers will self-educate using the internet if lawyers are not creating marketing materials to meet and educate that consumer where those consumers are or if they’re not using those materials to bring those consumers closer to a purchase decision, they won’t stand out in an age of abundance. Sales doesn’t have to be that icky, persistent, in-your-face, used-car-sales kind but it must be intentional. In fact, savvy consumers will probably choose to tune out bad sales and marketing. But if you’re not clearly and directly communicating your value proposition today, it’s likely that your message will get drowned out in all the noise.
OK, so I know scale isn’t technically a skill or even really a characteristic but I’m including it anyway. Much of what some lawyers do is “bespoke” (an old-school word meaning “made to order”) instead of routinized or systematized. However, much of what many lawyers do is not bespoke, it’s pretty close to routine. Examples could be processes within the firm, such as intake, certain types of marketing, payment processing or other activities, or they could be part of the legal services that the firm actually delivers – estate plans, simple pleadings forms, or other activities. Regardless, this afternoon’s lawyers are relentless about identifying and optimizing their legal work for scale, constantly hunting for opportunities to turn some part of their business into a process and, in so doing, make their business more efficient and, ideally, more profitable.
There’s no doubt the profession is changing. Lawyers need to change with it. Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers is aptly subtitled “An introduction to your future.” The legal profession is definitely headed to a place that looks a lot like what Susskind describes. I’m just convinced that there may be a few intermediary steps – including some specific skills that lawyers can focus on – between tomorrow and right now.