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In today’s world, what does it mean to be a successful lawyer?

As the corporate world evolves, attitudes about what makes a good lawyer are shifting. What do clients want, and how can individuals distinguish themselves?

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The role of trusted adviser is a critical one for businesses of all sizes. The success of major acquisitions, resolutions of potentially cataclysmic disputes or taking companies from private to public all hinge on astute legal decision-making. However, changing work behaviours, greater focus on ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) matters and the acceleration of technology in the workplace mean that client expectations have shifted. To be a successful lawyer in 2022 means adapting to an evolving corporate world.

“The legal industry has changed tremendously over the last decade, and it's becoming a lot more collaborative,” explains Phillip Greer, CEO of Best Lawyers, the legal commentator run on a peer-review basis. “More and more businesses want their counsel not only to provide them with legal advice and feedback, but to act as a business partner. And with developments in technology, providing access to lawyers at all hours of the day is expected.” A recent survey by Wolters Kluwer[1] revealed that the key priorities for clients when selecting a lawyer include the ability to deploy technology productively, to understand client needs and to specialise.

Piers Plumptre, associate at Gibson Dunn who is also recognised in Best Lawyers' 2023 edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in the United Kingdom™ for International Arbitration, also believes that versatility and creativity are becoming more important. “Sometimes you just need an expert in a particular field, but clients increasingly value a breadth of knowledge,” he says. “To become a client’s go-to counsel, especially if that client is a corporate, you must know their business more holistically. Lawyers who are polymaths excel in this new environment.”

The adoption of innovation

Digital transformation has played a significant part in the evolution of the trusted adviser, and new technology is underpinning the modernisation of law firms. With higher profit margins, increased productivity, and optimisation of workflows, adopting cutting-edge technology means that firms can offer a better overall service to the client. That said, the legal profession is still somewhat behind the curve in the adoption of new technology; research by Deloitte, for example, shows that while cloud computing provides “critical advantages” to lawyers, only 38 per cent of lawyers currently use it[2].

“The democratisation and commoditisation of information has meant that legal instructions and legal work produced are so much richer now,” says Richard Kemp, name partner at Kemp IT Law and the 2022 Best Lawyers “Lawyer of the Year” honouree in Information Technology Law in London. “For work that is commoditising, tech is critical for the key adviser, but for all the innovation theatre, law firms are still followers rather than leaders.”

The qualities that matter

Being an in-demand lawyer in 2022’s competitive market means so much more than simply showing good judgement. The cornerstones of the role remain, of course. “There are universal traits,” says Kemp. “Perception, intuition, analysis, the ability to get things done, being a good listener and, top of the list, trust.” However, embracing innovation and technology, adapting to a changing market and understanding the wider business are all increasingly important.

Navigating a professional sphere that is fast-evolving and unpredictable means experience isn’t necessarily the trump card it once was, either. The best solutions sometimes come from junior members of a legal team, says Plumptre. “Providing imaginative solutions to problems will always set you apart as a lawyer,” he argues. “That requires a degree of creativity – not perhaps a quality traditionally associated with lawyers! But the most successful among us will have that skill and, importantly, it isn’t something that is the preserve of senior practitioners.”

Greer believes that versatility is the attribute that today’s top lawyers must demonstrate above all. “Whether it’s fee structure, communication style or the arrangement in which they are doing business for a company, for a lawyer to become successful they have to remain agile. They’re going to have to continue to educate themselves in changing technology, and they’re going to have to be able to rely on their bench. After all, the corporate lawyer is, more than ever, a company’s first line of defence.”

View the 2023 Best Lawyers in the UK Honourees, identified as the industry’s best by their peers.

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