Mental health, tech and a reliance on the billable hour model are some of the main topics in-house counsel are looking for the industry to tackle in the coming year.
In-house leaders at easyJet, Divido, Thriva and Abellio UK share what they’re looking for from their preferred law firms and the wider legal sector in 2022.
Review the billable hour model
The legal industry’s love affair with the billable hour model needs to come to an end in order to truly tackle the sector’s mental wellbeing problem, according to Toby McCrindle, head of legal and compliance at financial services software company Divido.
The issue has rapidly risen up the agenda in recent years, both when it comes to firms’ junior and senior ranks. Despite efforts from law firms to try to improve the situation, the biggest improvement can come from “seriously reviewing the profession’s continued reliance on the billable hour”, he continued.
“There is only so much difference this additional support can make whilst associates are measured predominantly on billable hours.
“If the choice is between missing targets, not receiving a bonus and the perception that promotion is impossible without hitting or exceeding targets, associates will continue to choose burn-out over self-care”.
With anxiety and burnout just some of the reasons for the huge associate talent drain in 2021, it’s obvious that the industry needs to find a more long-term solution.
McCrindle added that not enough firms are reviewing the “outdated” model and that it is “time to see some thought leadership in this space”.
Go beyond legal
It may sound like a broken record, but general counsel are still looking for advisers that go above and beyond pure legal expertise in 2022.
Maaike de Bie, group general counsel at U.K. low-cost airline easyJet said she is looking for a “more strategic lens” from her law firms in 2022, with an increased focus on the bigger picture as opposed to just addressing the legal issues.
“It’s understanding the entire universe in which you operate – lawyers that have that broader viewpoint stand out”, she added.
In 2021, GCs said they were keen to see evidence of this in panel pitches too. James Sullivan, chief operating officer and general counsel at crypto challenger bank Ziglu, said being more than a law firm is often a crucial selling point.
Echoing this view, Ed Walker, general counsel at rail and bus services operator Abellio UK, said he’d particularly like mid-range firms to “move from being legal advisers to true counsel”.
He also believes law firms are missing a real opportunity when it comes to operational expertise, noting that the Big Four are already strong in this area.
“[The Big Four] know how to project manage and how to fit the legal stuff into the IT and business process. Plus, they sound convincing at the table. Lawyers still give you the law.”
Embrace the new
For Rachael Carolan, chief legal officer at healthtech start up Thriva, a key – and simple – thing she’s looking for is responsiveness and clarity, particularly when it comes to timelines for completion. Some GC-law firm partnerships have managed to find a good rhythm when it comes to tackling deadlines, but for others, a lack of clear communication is still a pain point.
“We’re moving very quickly as a business and it’s impossible to deliver at speed unless we’re able to ensure the ‘legals’ are completed in good time before, for example, a product release”, she explained.
It’s a common perception that the legal industry struggles to move forward from historical traditions, of all kinds. While lawyers adapted surprisingly well to remote working and seemingly responded well to video calls and other virtual aspects of working, Carolan would now like to see firms continue to embrace new technology and being open to using the client’s systems.
Lawyers at the top firms often hail from similar backgrounds, and even the same schools, meaning law firms can often end up with a lot of people who have been taught to think the same way.
Divido’s McCrindle wants the industry to look beyond the “typical traits of academic excellence and dedication” when developing their lawyers.
This has been a topic in the industry for a long time. In 2020, several top GCs said they were tired of corporate law firms regurgitating the same breed of lawyers who were not dynamic enough and far too risk-averse.
Chris Fox, general counsel at Zellis, said this is largely down to “the way law firms and training is structured”, meaning lawyers can’t give dynamic advice.
McCrindle points to Network Rail GC Dan Kayne’s O Shaped Lawyer project, which promotes wider attributes to make a more well-rounded lawyer. These include openness, creativity, optimism and accountability.
“The more firms, law schools and in-house legal teams that adopt an O-shaped approach, the more our profession (and the individuals coming through the system) will benefit”, McCrindle said.
Open up the profession
Diversifying thought can also be aided by broadening access to the profession, which McCrindle is also keen to see wider efforts in, emphasising that “more can and should be done to fill the gaps left by the current scope of our formal legal education system”.
In June 2021, Allen & Overy announced an apprenticeship scheme which offers a non-traditional route into the profession. This followed Linklaters’ scheme of five fully-funded preparation courses for the SQE to refugee lawyers, earlier in 2021.
But such schemes, open days and one-off skills sessions are not enough, McCrindle said:
“The adoption of solicitor-apprenticeships by some firms is great to see and provides another route into the profession – but a greater focus on helping under-represented groups enter the profession by providing structured skills training (including crucial ‘soft skills’), for example, before the point at which candidates are applying for training contracts would be welcome.”