What Will Happen To BigLaw When Gen Z Is In Charge?

By Natalie Rodriguez
February 10, 2020

2040.Sure, it sounds like a long way off, but in a quick two decades today's law students and fresh-faced associates will be the ones presiding over a legal industry that could be almost unrecognizable from the one we see today.

Just consider the massive amount of change that has happened since the turn of the century.

The iPhone has put lawyers on a shorter tether to clients and given associates and judges alike a legal library in the palm of their hands.

The recession and globalization have given in-house counsel a higher standing in the legal hierarchy and driven BigLaw firms into a race to get bigger and cover more international ground, all while upending the traditional partnership track.

"My own sense is that the change we have seen over the last 20 years is likely to look very small compared to the changes coming over the next 20 years," said David Wilkins, director of Harvard University's Center on the Legal Profession.

While the law's stability and big paychecks are going to be a draw for the Gen Z members who came of age during the recession, they are going to want the same level of customization when it comes to their career that they do in personalizing everything from smartphone experiences to specialized degrees, according to David Stillman, founder of consultancy Gen Z Guru.

"This generation wants to come up with their own job titles," Stillman said.

This could lead many Gen Z lawyers towards smaller firms, where they can take on various roles — rather than be pigeonholed into a specific career track, according to Stillman.

Gen Z most closely favors Baby Boomers in work ethic, with more young adults in school or work now than their millennial or Gen X counterparts were at this stage in their lives, according to the Center for Generational Kinetics, which studies the differences between generations. This will position them well to take the reins during what could be lean and challenging times for the industry. 

"Gen Z is very adaptable," Stillman said. "They're great at change."

Gen Z will also bring new energy to gender and racial diversity efforts in the law, in large part because they will be the most diverse generation ever to hit the American workforce, according to experts.

The opportunities that BigLaw has begun offering associates to spend monthslong stints working out of international offices will evolve from rare resume brags to almost standard career milestones for those interested in leadership positions.

"If you don't have global experience, you're not becoming a CEO anymore, and that's going to be true of becoming a managing partner. If you want to be a global business, you're going to have to understand the world," Wilkins said.

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The legal leaders of 2040 will also have to expand their circle — think data technicians, cybersecurity professionals, chief knowledge officers, legal tech and artificial intelligence systems engineers, all of whom are going to play much larger roles in the BigLaw ecosystem in the next few decades.

"If you only speak lawyer, then you're going to have a hard time leading a firm in the 2030s and 2040s," said Jordan Furlong, a legal industry consultant.

In the coming two decades, new waves of consolidation could shrink the BigLaw ecosphere to maybe 50 global firms. To survive, many firms and many Gen Z leaders will experiment with joint ventures with technology companies and other complicated structures that take advantage of the eventual loosening of rules on law firm structures.

"We've seen this race to be as big as possible because somehow the simple fact of being big gives you this huge competitive advantage. In my viewpoint that's completely wrong," said Mitchell E. Kowalski, a legal operation adviser and visiting professor focused on legal innovation at the University of Calgary Law School.

Bill Josten of Thomson Reuters' Legal Executive Institute agrees that the industry is currently at a turning point: "We seem to be moving further away from 'headcount equals capacity.'"

When the next economic recession hits, Josten expects firms will slash their headcount — but not necessarily the fat associate paychecks the industry has recently seen trend upwards. Rather, firms will likely continue to up the ante on salaries to compete for top talent until it creates a real divide between the law firms that can offer top dollar and those that can't.

"It will create a rank of truly elite firms in terms of their compensation. They will be truly elite because they can just afford to pay more. I expect to see fewer and fewer firms able to match every successive increase," said Josten.

While a handful of firms will continue to be doing bet-the-house litigation, most firms will survive by focusing on two to three specialties and forgetting about trying to compete as a full-service firm. The key will be choosing the right strategies as the industry gets more cutthroat.

"Thinking you're one of the firms that will be doing M&A in 20 years and being wrong — that can be a fatal mistake," said Keith Wetmore, a Major Lindsey Africa consultant.

Most deals-based and corporate practice areas will be dealing with an ever more complicated morass of international regulations on data and privacy. To help cut through that, there will also be more companies that use technology to ensure contracts across countries and languages are standardized, but still meet each jurisdiction's particular rules.

While some of the industry's current alternative legal service providers, or NewLaw as some have been dubbed, have recently been struggling, experts predict that will change in the future and Gen Z lawyers coming through today's educational pipeline will be primed to push this emerging sector forward.

"By their nature, some of these are simply going to fail. Startups and upstarts have a higher failure rate," said Furlong.

In 2040, technology will shave days' worth of time off of the more menial tasks that currently consume associate time and will prompt an overhaul of the duties — and training — of the Gen Alpha associates of tomorrow.

"I think what we will see over the next two decades is a movement away from lawyer-dominated legal service providers into service providers that are augmented by lawyers. So it basically turns the industry on its head," said Kowalski.

Associates will be learning not so much by poring through hundreds — or thousands — of tedious documents, but by going over the summary reports of an AI program that does that menial work, according to Ben Alaire, founder of legal technology firm Blue J Legal.

The reports will be the starting point for legal analysis, and associates will regularly be going over them with more senior lawyers to figure out what anomalies in the report might mean for a deal or litigation.

In many ways, these advancements will give lawyers of the next generation back the time to focus primarily on their role as an adviser, said Emily Foges, CEO of legal technology firm Luminance. And the technology that cuts through those hours of more menial tasks, which seems so advanced to us today, will fade into the background of their daily lives.

"I think it will become really normal and boring," said Foges.

--Editing by Martin Bricketto, Pamela Wilkinson and John Campbell.

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