A common stereotype of the legal sector is that it is quick to calcify and slow to change its established way of doing things. Regardless of how true this may be when compared to other industries, the world of law is far from stagnant, as we observe every month; the way legal professionals work is ever-changing in a myriad of ways, reflecting the needs of the society it serves.
We saw shades of each of these trends rise in prominence throughout 2022. Together, they provide a glimpse of what the top priorities will be for law firms and in-house counsel as the year progresses. We hope that this makes for a useful bite-sized sector overview.
While artificial intelligence (AI) has long been touted for the benefits it stands to bring to the legal profession, 2022 saw some truly portentous developments. Tools such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT took the world by storm, demonstrating the potential of so-called ‘generative’ AI for producing content from code to essays to advertisements.
Similar AI systems tailored for the legal sector – such as Lexion’s AI Contract Assist – have the potential to greatly boost a law firm’s productivity through the automation of processes involved in due diligence, legal research, contract management and discovery. As existing systems are built upon and new competitors emerge, we can expect firms to entrust greater portions of their output to creative machines in and beyond 2023. It is little coincidence that 76% of legal professionals see digital technology as one of the key drivers of change in the model legal sector.
However, we are no closer to a mass replacement of legal professionals by AI, despite popular fears. “Lawyers exercise independent professional judgment,” Muldoon & Partners founder Katherine Muldoon points out. “AI cannot currently emulate essential lawyer skills such as strategic and creative thinking, conflict resolution, negotiation, emotional intelligence and empathy. In short, the things that make a good lawyer great.”
We are no closer to a mass replacement of legal professionals by AI, despite popular fears.
Where recruitment and marketing have not yet fallen victim to tightening budgets, legal teams in 2023 will continue to explore new avenues of reaching target audiences. This of course means well-targeted advertising, which is embodied in the idea of social recruitment.
Emergent modes of social recruitment go beyond job listing websites such as Monster and Indeed, which law firms have been using to source candidates since their inception. This year, recruiters expect to place greater emphasis on proactively identifying and engaging with ideal candidates through social media forums. LinkedIn is an obvious source of talent, but firms are now beginning to utilise the potential of messaging candidates directly through other sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which can also be used to advertise vacancies and services using hashtags.
Better still, the use of social media can buoy other forms of marketing too, as 73% of buyers are more likely to consider a brand if the salesperson reaches out via LinkedIn. 42% of small law firms have also confirmed that their active use of social media has resulted in an uptick in clients. Every new entrepreneur and every newly trained lawyer will have vast experience of using social media; every legal marketer ought to be conscious of this and devoting their resources accordingly.
As the American Bar Association noted in 2019, “Almost every recession has coincided with some significant change in the [legal] profession”, with evidence to suggest that this pattern has been extant since 1960. Now that fears of widespread economic downturn are once again swelling, it is no surprise that law firms are taking every opportunity to push cash a little bit further and tackle rising costs where they can still be cut back.
Legal fees are at the forefront of many firms’ profit-finding strategies. A report from Wells Fargo indicates that law firms will be looking to raise fees by an average of 7% to 8% this year, yet how practicable this will be remains doubtful. There is mounting pressure from venture capital and private equity firms to curb legal costs, with 80% of respondents in a Coleman Parkes survey complaining of a lack of transparency in fees and 40% saying that bills are always higher than expected.
Legal fees are at the forefront of many firms’ profit-finding strategies.
Several methods are being employed to reduce costs incurred by outside counsel. Upwards of 60% of legal departments now employ at least one legal operations specialist for the purpose of improving departmental efficiency, with a similar proportion having negotiated payments for counsel in a form other than hourly billing. This same cost crunch will likely fuel many of the other trends expected for 2023, such as a renewed focus on AI ‘outsourcing’.
Ransomware and other cyberattacks rank among the most debilitating threats to a law firm’s operations. With a growing focus on technology and the digitalisation of processes, the potential damages caused by malicious actors will only continue to grow, as we saw firsthand with a number of security breaches in firms in 2020 as the sector made a widespread pivot towards remote working. The risk has been recognised by international bodies, with the EU proposing new cybersecurity regulations to counter the surge.
Accordingly, legal teams are already seeking to bolster their firms’ safeguards against bad actors. The use of comprehensive data backup and recovery solutions is growing more normalised, protecting against the irretrievable loss of data in case of an attack that locks a firm’s systems (but doing little to prevent this data being leaked). Managed software solutions are another avenue being explored by many firms, hiring outside expertise to develop more secure IT infrastructure. While expensive, investments of this scale are more likely to be seen as worthwhile in light of the global average cost of a data breach reaching $4.35 million last year.
Beyond being a concern for law firms, cybersecurity represents a growing consideration for organisations in every sector. As cloud services and remotely accessed databases are normalised across the working world, cybersecurity and privacy are poised to become one of the most profitable practice areas. Firms that are looking to capitalise on this would do well to invest in their talent pool immediately, the better to provide a competitor-beating service that will guarantee demand in the months to come.