The evolution of the digital landscape has created a number of consequences for the legal professional both in and outside the tech sector. The primary change in my view is the volume of communications, speed, and expectations which are a direct function of the increasing speed at which tech businesses in particular are expected to operate.
As a result, there is exponentially more data in multiple forms and channels which impact the work of legal professionals. In my view, this is at its core an information management problem. This manifests itself in multiple ways, including how in-house counsel manages requests for legal assistance to serve their clients. Do they use matter management systems, how do they capture and create knowledge bases to understand what advice was given in the past to reduce duplicate efforts and determine if changes are necessary. The number of channels of information has increased as well. It’s not just email, which is a poor organization tool to inherently use, but internal messaging systems, groups, and increasingly more online/customer interface applications. In addition, the growth of social media focused on employee communications creates an additional dimension without the traditional control mechanisms legal professionals are accustomed to using.
Counsels are also increasingly aware of business and legal risks that need to be managed, once identified. Often these functions have a significant legal component but the data and drivers of these projects live in other disciplines and systems including risk management, finance, and internal audit.
At the same time, the growth in data creates new opportunities. The digitization of data creates meta-data. This gives us the opportunity to better analyze and deliver our services, manage and forecast growth, and even to compare performance against other market standards. In general, law is not practiced on an outcomes basis because there was little structured data in the past to analyze the legal approach against the outcomes. Law has been much more experiential, judgmental and craftful. Ultimately, law will develop much like medicine so that treatments are based on real data and outcomes. Even the risks can be quantified as new data sets grow, and perhaps if we also collaborate more to create the reference data that we need.
The Changing Role
The dominant change in my view has been the evolution of the legal professional from legal counsel to business principal with legal expertise. Alignment with the businesses and understanding the critical path for the business is essential to provide the kind of value shareholders expect from their C-suite. It’s no longer good enough to be a great lawyer. You have to be a great business person who can contribute across multiple vectors. Perhaps this is a throwback to the days of the “general counsel” as it was originally defined. This means understanding the financial and market drivers of the business and being able to translate those into actions in the legal domain. It also means an ability to embrace more risk but in an informed and calculated manner. In addition, the scope of competence has also grown, particularly with public companies that require a whole set of skills necessary to support the expectations of directors and shareholders.