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The Changing Practice of Law: Lessons for new lawyers

November 6, 2020

Roz Bahrami

Any new lawyer is aware that the practice of law in Canada is not the same as it used to be. However, it is not until the newly minted lawyers finish their articling terms and are looking for full-time employment, that they realize the extent of change in the legal world. Newly called lawyers and law students will need to understand how the practice of law is changing, understand the dimensions of such change, and hopefully, equip themselves with materials to navigate through the change.

How is the practice of law changing?

The practice of law is changing in a variety of ways. From the perspective of new lawyers, the most important change is the decrease in the number of traditional job opportunities at big law firms. The primary reason: businesses and individuals are becoming increasingly price conscious, and are demanding leaner firm structures. Law firms are therefore becoming more efficient, cutting costs and outsourcing a significant amount of legal and non-legal work. Similarly, technological innovation means that much legal work is processed by computers, and less lawyers are required to supervise and counter check the work. Finally, businesses and individuals are becoming increasingly knowledgeable, and are willing to attempt legal work themselves.

How does this impact new lawyers?

These changes to the practice of law have major consequences for new lawyers; there are less traditional opportunities in larger law firms, and new lawyers will need to look for alternate paths to achieving a successful legal practice. Also, as a result of enhanced cost cutting, established law firms do not have the capacity to train new lawyers and invest as much time in their development as they have previously. This results in new lawyers facing a lack of jobs, with a lack of experience, and a situation where they neither have jobs nor are they fully trained to go out and “hang their shingle” as sole practitioners.

What can new lawyers expect?

The nature of jobs available to new lawyers has changed tremendously. While some lawyers will continue to find traditional permanent positions at larger law firms, a growing number of new lawyers will find opportunities in the new and developing sectors:

Document Review: More and more law firms are outsourcing document review work to legal service providers. These providers employ a large number of lawyers on contract basis for document review projects. Although the projects are sporadic and there is not necessarily permanency of work, many newly called lawyers are beginning their careers as document review analysts. Some large law firms have even started to employ staff attorneys for their own internal document review divisions.

Virtual Solo Practice: With market mechanics demanding increased efficiency, more and more lawyers are choosing to operate ‘virtual’ law firms. By decreasing fixed expenses such as office rent, staff salaries, etc., lawyers are able to reduce their fee and provide a better value to clients. New lawyers should expect to work as a solo practitioner at some point in their career, potentially running their own virtual law firms. Similarly, new lawyers will have to reach out to clients, both businesses and individuals, and develop relationships. This networking will play a key role in securing ongoing work, which will include short term contract work as well as part-time, in house counsel roles for small businesses.

Alternate Careers: A number of lawyers will have to consider roles outside law. Canadian law schools are producing more law graduates than the market can absorb. On top of that, there are Canadians going to law schools abroad, as well as new immigrant lawyers who are entering the legal market in Canada. As such, newly called lawyers will have to look for alternate careers – and there are plenty around. The advantage: law school and bar training prepares lawyers to do more than just lawyering, and new lawyers should be open to exploring opportunities in business, finance, government, and the fast growing technology industry.

Is there any way to make oneself more marketable as a new lawyer?

Of course. The practice of law is changing, the number of traditional law jobs are decreasing, however, there are certainly opportunities for lawyers who are willing to embrace change and broaden their skills. New lawyers can benefit from focusing on the following skills:

Business skills: Law in today’s world is a business, albeit a highly ethical and intensely regulated one. The most important skill required to be a successful lawyer in today’s market is the ability to masterfully run the business of law. New lawyers can certainly benefit from honing their business skills.

Project Management skills: Lawyers, especially junior lawyers, are increasingly expected to treat a transaction like a project and focus on results. This is particularly true for lawyers working as document reviewers. Learning more about project management and gaining certifications can substantially increase employment prospects of a new lawyer.

Specialist Legal skills: While big law firms are decreasing the number of lawyers they hire, there is an increasing demand for lawyers with specialist skills at niche law firms. New lawyers can make themselves professionally attractive by developing a specialist legal skill. This can be done through pursuing a Part-Time or Full-Time Professional LLM or by attending a CPD program in a specific area of law.

The practice of law is changing, and by all accounts, this trend will continue. The days when a lawyer was expected to concentrate only on legal work are over. A new lawyer is now expected to be a lawyer, a businessman, and a project coordinator. Above all, the new lawyer is expected to be adaptable to change and willing to embrace it with passion. Those new lawyers who appreciate these changing realities will better integrate in the workforce and will have a meaningful and satisfying career.

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MUHAMMAD ZEESHAN ADHI is a lawyer and business consultant in Toronto. He studied law in England and practiced law in Pakistan before moving to Canada and re-qualifying as a Barrister and Solicitor. He also has a degree in finance and has worked as an investment banker and management consultant.