A protective barrier for lawyers

Lawyers are considered to be hardworking knowledge workers. Ideally, they are primarily distinguished by four characteristics: legal expertise, many years of experience, writing competence, and relational and contextual knowledge. At the same time, these qualities also constitute a kind of protective barrier against competition. However, some of these protective barriers have already fallen or are threatening to do so soon.

Protective barrier 1 is lost: legal knowledge has been democratised by the internet

Before the turn of the millennium, finding specialised legal knowledge in physical libraries was still regarded as a proven competence. With the emergence of the internet, lawyers were at pains to point out how incomplete and defective digital databases were and that they would be incapable of replacing manual research (#80/20 rule). If we ask them today, we notice that they surf in the internet with complete ease while explaining that they are googling more intelligently than others (#Prompt Engineer) and are better able to assess the relevance of the hits thus received. They do not claim to possess the “grail of legal knowledge” any longer since it has become accessible to everyone easily and quickly (#Access to Justice). If students still like to frequent university libraries, it is not because of the books but because they want to learn things in peace and quiet.

Protective barrier 2 is badly damaged – less experience is accumulated

The new working and working-hour conditions accelerated in the wake of the pandemic (#New Work) have resulted in many freedoms, such as flexibility in terms of time, independence of specific locations and part-time work. What is often ignored, however, is the fact that this has also led to disadvantages, both for individuals (#Proximity Bias) and for companies (e.g., loss of loyalty, administration burden, legal consequences). You do not need to be a mathematician to conduct a quantitative assessment of the consequences of part-time work: those who work less are bound to gain less experience. As a consequence, working results must be expected to be of inferior quality – employees with half the amount of experience will do their work less well. This will result in a situation whereby the quantitative skill shortage will be compounded by a qualitative one. Try it out for yourself: when you next want to see a doctor, ask yourself whether you would prefer to be examined by a part-time doctor or a by a more experienced one.

Protective barrier 3 is crumbling – writing competence threatened by AI

One core competence of lawyers consists in being able to write and draw up texts better than others. New forms of artificial intelligence (#ChatGPT) are an outright invitation to lawyers to outsource this work to technology to a certain extent or at least in the first creative moment of the thinking process. The more we do this, the more likely we are to lose our writing competence and the concomitant critical faculty. After all, how are we supposed to critically assess the plausibility of convincingly formulated texts if we do not have any own experience and comparative values? To explain it with another image: how can you assess whether a recipe is good and how you could, or possibly even would have to, modify it if you don’t have any cooking experience?

Protective barrier 4 is at risk – contextual knowledge still has a competitive edge

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is capable of searching for and combining relevant information from a wealth of data today (#Syntax). But it is (still) less good at using the correct terms because it still fails to understand the meaning of single words perfectly (#Semantics). Furthermore, it also lacks the knowledge of the context that is relevant to an assessment. Lawyers must possess such knowledge, in particular when it comes to advising their clients (#Know Your Customer). However, they also require context knowledg in the management of their law firms and legal departments (#Legal Operations and #Legal Management). In both application scenarios, supplementary knowledge also in areas such as strategic positioning, innovative business models, proper leadership (#Cave-Dweller), good customer knowledge (#KYC), as well as appropriate risk and crisis management is indispensable today for long-term success.

Protective barrier 5 is (still) intact – relationship management as the last bastion?

We should remember that orders are placed by people, even if they work in companies. And despite all the technical achievements, they have remained cave-dwellers who continue to be receptive to direct human exchange. However, lawyers are in danger of losing this unique competitive advantage (#USP), for unlike a doctor, they do not need to do their work on a “living object”. Rather, the necessary factual information can also easily be exchanged through e-mail, PDF, video calls or chats. This automatically reduces the amount of experience gained in connection with human communication, customer contact and relationship management. In this way, the most important “lubricant” is lost: interpersonal relationships.

Recommendation: resist sweet temptation – judiciously

Specialist legal expertise does not provide lawyers with a sufficiently strong distinguishing feature in competition. Furthermore, new working models do not only create more flexibility and freedom, but also cause a lack of experience and increase distances to customers and team members. As a consequence, proximity to the workplace, loyalty towards employers and customer relationships suffer. The lack of distinctiveness and a lower degree of dependencies result in increased exchangeability – among lawyers and with regard to technology. In order to reduce these risks, lawyers should not only invest in legal expertise but more in customer and relationship management and also ensure that they become more complex and work in a more entrepreneurial fashion.

The following questions remain to be answered: will the newly created opportunities for an increase in convenience in the form of large databases, higher speed and AI necessarily result in losses of quality among lawyers and in legal services? If they do, how should lawyers react to this in their capacity as entrepreneurs? Or will technological progress compensate for these shortcomings? And if not, will we have to limit ourselves with regard to our options since the consequent disadvantages are too big? I am looking forward to your views on this!

About us

The Law & Management division of the Executive School of the University of St.Gallen (HSG) has been providing executive education as open programmes or tailor-made in-house courses at all levels (week-long seminars, CAS, DAS, Executive Master) ever since 2007 and is currently doing so in eight subject areas. To date, more than 1,600 participants have attended the open executive education programmes, which are continually being updated and extended. The comprehensive executive education format that was introduced in 2021 is expressive of a clear commitment to lifelong learning in that all the courses are modular in design and can be arranged flexibly in terms of time and according to individual requirements. Above and beyond this, the following executive education objectives are being pursued: getting to know many-faceted career perspectives and options, establishing and expanding networks, profiting from new methods and tools, and generally extending participants’ personal horizons.

About the author(s)

1 Bruno Mascello UNI SG PORTRAIT 0112222287 INTERNET

Prof. Dr. Bruno Mascello Director, Academic Director Law & Management

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