Alternative Legal Careers in Law Firms –New opportunities for a transforming legal world
30 September 2021

Alternative Legal Careers in Law Firms – New opportunities for a transforming legal world!

Published on 30 September 2021

Alternative legal careers – that’s a hot topic in industry media. There’s lots of layers to this and all of them confirm significant change in the legal ecosystem. There’s no doubt that legaltech and data have been enablers for different work, different capabilities, and the different revenue streams that continue to evolve in law firms to match changing clients demands. Legal practice today is about different people doing different things, differently! So, it’s not surprising that the “different” bits have consolidated to create new roles and specialisms…not new to every industry, but new to the legal world or, at least, nuanced to support changing needs and expectations. In this evolving space, law firms are emerging as key education providers and employers of a new, second wave of alternate (but increasingly mainstream) legal careerists - we’re going to exploring that in this post!

It’s not quite déjà vu!

It’s worth spending a second to canvas what is meant by “alternative.” In many of the schemes/programs I’ll discuss to here, “alternative” refers to different careers for lawyers. In fact, for the first wave of alternative legal careerists, being a lawyer was almost (if not definitely) a pre-requisite to being qualified for the role. The specialist areas/roles I’m referring to here are those we see in many law firms today like business development/marketing, knowledge management, talent management, diversity & inclusion, and pro bono. And, while professionals in finance and IT also fall into this first wave, a legal qualification was not as often, if at all, seen as a prerequisite. All these roles, and the others I’ll be discussing here, have evolved. For these professionals working in law firms today, legal qualifications alone are not enough to get the job done.

So, the focus and discussion about alternative legal careers today is not a revolution, it’s at best an evolution and, there’s still a long way to go. Hint, if you’re still acknowledging contribution to your legal business based solely on who sends the bill or using terms like “non-lawyer” or “support staff” or “general staff” as a collective noun to describe everyone other than the lawyers in your firm, you still have a VERY long way to go! But I digress…

So, what distinguishes the new or second wave of alternative legal careerists in law firms from the first? It’s four things mostly: first, their “new-ness;” second, a primary focus on external/client matters versus internal/operational or administration matters; third, that they are leading or contributing directly to the delivery of new/additional revenue streams; and last, if these specialists have a legal qualification, that’s not the one they lead with. Having noted this, these professionals may also have an internal role or focus but that’s usually a smaller part of their job. Who are these people? I’m referring here to legal ops professionals; data analysts; legal technologists; project managers; and risk, strategy, governance, and innovation consultants…to name a few! So where are these specialists, what’s their career path and where do they learn their stuff? Answer: in law firms especially in the UK…

New roles in law firms in the UK (and beyond)

Last month (August 2021), Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) (legal ops) joined an expanding group of law firms offering “training schemes in non-traditional areas of the legal industry” to law graduates. The same month, Addleshaw Goddard (innovation and tech) launched its Innovation and Legal Technology Graduate Scheme. These schemes/programs succeeded earlier launches by MacFarlanes (lawtech), Linklaters (legal ops), Slaughter & May (legal ops), Ashurst (new law), Norton Rose Fulbright (innovation), Allen & Overy (lawtech and consulting graduate programs) and Clifford Chance (lawtech). Most of these schemes/programs focus on law grads but, not all. For example, in 2019, Clifford Chance in collaboration with apprenticeships specialists WhiteHat (now Multiverse), launched a scheme for school leavers who wanted to become project managers.

In all these firms, the impetus for establishing the schemes/programs has been to develop expertise it did not have, apply it their own business operations but, mostly, offer the expertise as an additional, new service/product to clients in areas like legaltech, legal ops, project/matter management and risk minimisation.

Most of the law grad schemes/programs in these law firms are of a similar duration to the UK solicitor’s training contract (2 years) and even mimic aspects of it, like multiple rotations and undertaking “real world” work (in the firm, with clients or associated organisations), but few operate in parallel with the training contract. Consequently, when the scheme/program is completed, in most firms, participants do not have an option to work as a solicitor. Instead, they are/will be offered a position in one of the firm’s new business units/functions where they worked one of their rotations.

In all cases, the establishment of the schemes/programs has proactively contributed to building a multiskilled workforce with capabilities to serve changing business focuses and revenue streams. Consequently, the firms also acknowledged (explicitly and/or implicitly) several other things:

  • It’s noteworthy that many of these schemes/programs have been established in the last few years and, a number in the last year – it’s been a time of significant global change and for law firms, a time where legaltech uptake and the focus on efficiency have skyrocketed.
  • The subject areas these schemes/programs focus on require different, specialist skills – a background in law is seen as helpful but was not sufficient in and of itself for these specialist roles. It will be interesting to see how that changes (if at all) as law schools or undergrad prep courses start to incorporate the areas noted next into their curricula.
  • The most common areas focussed on by law firms in these schemes/programs include (there are differences depending on the focus of the scheme/program): legal ops, pricing, legal automation, legaltech, legal project management, process improvement, matter management, process design, design thinking, innovation, knowledge, business intelligence and risk management.
  • Experimentation and continuous improvement are seen core learning components of these schemes/programs sometimes this is emphasised by firms through a rotation in the firm’s incubator/lab or by working in a tech company or university lab/clinic the firm is associated with.
  • All the capabilities learnt in these schemes/programs, at a foundations level, are increasingly being viewed as core capabilities for everyone who works in a law firm. The advanced level of these capabilities is what the scheme/program participants develop. In some cases, this learning is formalised through the acquisition of firm sponsored external qualifications in areas like project management.
  • These new specialists will expect career paths and advancement opportunities in their specialisms, something that has already been foreshadowed e.g., in the Addleshaw Goddard Innovation and Legal Technology Graduate Scheme. There will be a lot of work for law firm talent management professionals in this space as this moves forward.

New Roles = Real Transformation?

The grads from these schemes/programs work differently and with different tools. For some, this now matches how law firm clients have always worked. For others, it will create new and better ways to collaborate. Lawyers in these firms will need to be able to work the same way too.

And so, as these new roles multiply and expand, the question yet to be asked and answered is: Will the alternative legal careerists also become the catalysts, teachers, and protagonists for the “real” and sustained transformation of legal practice? Hmmmm - watch this space…

About the Author

Terri Mottershead is the Executive Director of the Centre for Legal Innovation (Australia, New Zealand and Asia-Pacific) (CLI) at The College of Law. Terri works internationally with leaders of legal businesses supporting them in identifying trends, developing strategies, and transforming their capabilities and practices to deliver legal services/products in the new legal ecosystem. She is the “instigator, designer and developer in chief” of CLI’s global initiatives, networks and programs including the Legalpreneurs Lab, the Innovation Incubator Program, and its podcast series, The Legalpreneurs Sandbox. Prior to joining CLI, Terri was a practising lawyer, founded start-ups on three different continents, and established or led the in-house talent management departments for global firms and associations in Asia and the US including Lex Mundi, the Inter-Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) and DLA Piper LLP (US).