In 2019, Big Four professional services firm PWC published a report on how law firms were adapting to paradigm transformations in business models, utilising technology to boost productivity and support new ways of working, building innovation cultures, and enhancing agility to better serve their client needs and navigate the complexities in the operating environment.

The PWC survey respondents included UK-headquartered law firms, as well as international firms having offices there. The respondents were surveyed on “key future challenges,” defined as “the most significant challenge facing the legal profession over the next 2-3 years.” Unsurprisingly, technological change, new entrants’ and talent retention were identified as the most pressing ones, along with Brexit and the ensuing economic uncertainty.

These challenges are opportunities for law firms to strengthen not just traditional legal services offerings but also explore diversified revenue streams, offering non-traditional products and services. Navigating such challenges deftly is no longer just about improving on metrics of efficiency, client growth or scaling up, or about having an IT strategy or workflow dashboards. The challenges call for reinventing the law firm in anticipation of an unfamiliar future.

Beyond the market gyrations, findings arising from the PWC survey indicate that it is not “business as usual.” Longstanding service offerings are not as profitable as before. People costs remain high the PWC survey reveals, but the return on investment in hiring and developing talent is not paying off as expected. In this new reality, developing people with the appropriate mindsets and skillsets could be the make-or-break factor for business continuity and success in the evolving operating environment. This view is echoed within the profession, by customers of legal services and service providers such as those specialising in technology solutions, although tech providers may unwittingly paint a narrative that deemphasises investment in people over investment in apps and platforms. Stuart Barr, who over-sees HighQ, an end-to-end solution for law firms offered by Thomson Reuters, emphasized in a recent podcast that for law firms, “the sweet spot if you can find them will be people who can work across different technology platforms to bring them together.”

The hiring strategy of law firms across jurisdictions increasingly includes attracting professionals with diverse skillsets and experience, often from outside the legal sector. This is evident from job posts by law firms on LinkedIn and their websites seeking technology managers, project managers and data scientists. What is not so evident is whether systematically developing staff capability is a strategic priority, as is hiring diverse talent. Conversations and action around actively developing staff capabilities across functions are underpublicized. It does not mean that such efforts are not underway. There is growing recognition among certain law firms of nurturing a learning infrastructure, which can support new ways of working with clients and working internally in innovative ways. Two examples from Singapore highlight efforts at developing lawyer skills with innovative service delivery as the goal.

Clifford Chance Asia Pacific has been experimenting systematically with bringing capabilities to harness tools and techniques to automate work-flows as part of its in-house Automation Academy. An intended outcome is to help overcome perceptions around lawyer unwillingness and ability to adapt to technology informed operations. Meanwhile, the Singapore Attorney General’s Chambers is upskilling its lawyers and support staff to deploy baseline MS Office applications in innovative ways for stream-lining internal processes for document assembly and template generation. On-the-job training is intended to help staff overcome potential mental barriers related to operating in unfamiliar territory and challenging stereotypes that lawyers tend to be uncomfortable with or unwilling to adopt new ways of working with technology. Such efforts leverage on workplace learning as a building block of staff development. Done right, it can be a very effective people development endeavour.

Beyond developing technical competencies, initiatives like the Automation Academy can ingrain abilities to work within the firm with both external and internal business support professionals and non-legal domain experts, opening channels for interprofessional collaboration. Legal professionals working in isolation cannot be expected to render improved client service design and delivery. This has been the experience of enterprises born around largely certain core professions such as the Big Four professional services firms, hospitals, airlines and IT services. 


Ankur Gupta is a law lecturer at the School of Business at Singapore’s Temasek Polytechnic.