I often reflect on my training as a lawyer during the 1990s and wonder if today’s trainees have the same opportunities to learn and advance as I was generously provided. I also wonder about the future of law and whether modern day demands have robbed practitioners of the ability to interact meaningfully with their clients and counterparts.
I joined a mid-sized firm in the City of London and within months was seated in a corner of the imposing office of the senior partner. There I listened in on all the conversations this most charming and charismatic lawyer had with clients and colleagues and when he dashed off to a meeting I was always invited to attend, to take notes and, as time went on, to contribute to the discussion. The deals were important, often meriting attention in the press, and I considered myself extremely fortunate to enjoy a front row seat at the table where I could listen and learn. Towards the end of the week I would occasionally be treated to a smoked salmon sandwich and glass of wine in a nearby establishment often frequented by leading members of the press and judiciary. This was also an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and watch how colleagues and adversaries engaged outside the formal context of a courtroom or office.
The practice of law has changed dramatically since those days. Over time, the ratio of junior lawyers to partners has grown as the larger firms have come under growing pressure from the US firms to increase operating leverage and generate higher profits. Charge out rates for both junior and senior lawyers have also increased significantly, requiring firms to demonstrate that they are handling work in the most efficient manner possible.
A consequence of this has been fewer face to face meetings with clients who are keen to minimize any form of non-essential engagement, such as pre-meeting mingling and small talk and certainly any travel (even local travel) on the part of their counsel. As a result, junior lawyers are often denied the opportunity to learn the softer skills of managing meetings, handling sensitive topics and seeing the art of negotiation being deployed. Rather, they are frequently saddled only with the burden of producing documents on the basis of instructions relayed to them by their immediate line manager.
At the same time, even senior lawyers and their clients have been limited in their ability to explore issues of concern in a face to face setting, thereby often denying themselves the ability to pause and reflect, pick up nuances in communication and truly understand the complexity of a particular scenario.
The pandemic ushered in the phenomenon of working from home which has exacerbated this trend of junior lawyers being sidelined from key inter-personal interactions and the communication between lawyers and clients generally becoming abrupt and limited.
Thankfully, it also normalized the usage of video conferencing and video chat so that both clients and lawyers are willing to embrace the opportunity to engage face to face over screens and to do so in a more spontaneous and natural manner.
Video conferencing provides junior team members with an invaluable opportunity to reclaim a seat at the front table. It even holds out the potential for junior lawyers to be exposed to discussions with barristers, judges and other court officials. More generally, video chat restores the ability of lawyers and clients to engage face to face in a deeper and more multi-dimensional way without sacrificing efficiency and convenience.
For this trend to develop further and be adopted in a more consistent way, the relevant systems will need to be extremely secure and offer add-ons such as screen sharing and other collaboration tools to enhance the user experience. In time, video chat tools will allow for higher quality communication to be enjoyed by all the strata of the profession and by a wider range of clients whilst enhancing the efficiency of both case management and courtroom work.
These developments allow me to be hopeful about the profession remaining both productive and efficient whilst holding out a real prospect of meaningful communication across the whole sector.
BRYAN CAVE LEIGHTON PAISNER LLP – London, UK / Tel Aviv