What Makes a Good Lawyer – 5 Years From Now?
21 Mar 2011
The Dutch law firm Houltoff Buruma is using a sophisticated computer game to select its new legal recruits. In “The Game”, legal knowledge doesn’t count for much.
What does this say about the future of legal practice?
The last two decades has seen the practice of law change considerably: The civil trial seems to be vanishing, at least partially because of the expense and risk of that process.
In its place, methods of what were once called “alternative” dispute resolution have become mainstays of litigation practice.
Mediation has seen stunning growth. At one time, more seasoned litigators considered it, at best, an obscure, alternative dispute resolution process, reserved for cases and clients whose issues revolved more around emotion than legal principle.
Today, mediation is firmly in the mainstream – in demand not only in the emotion-laden practice of family law, but also in commercial and insurance litigation.
Judicial settlement conferences, where judges meet with counsel and parties in an informal setting to try to settle the case, have become embedded in the rules of procedure for a growing number of jurisdictions. These sessions resemble mediation, but the judges are encouraged to give the parties a sense of how the settlement conference judge might decide the case had the evidence come out at trial.
Legal skills have always, and undoubtedly, will always include an encyclopedic knowledge of the law – not only as it relates to the issues in the case, but also the rules of evidence. Likewise, lawyers will always need strong negotiation and advocacy skills.
Lawyers, however, have not always been known for having good people skills. Yet people skills are exactly what Houtoff Buruma’s “Game” measures. Indeed, legal knowledge is not even required in order to play the “Game”. Instead, what the “Game” measures is creativity, leadership, problem-solving ability, and the ability to manage stress.
These skills play a critical role in a successful negotiation, mediation or judicial settlement conference, as well.
The challenge for future lawyers arises in part because these are not skills one directly acquires in law school. There is a saying that to a carpenter, the solution to every problem is a hammer. Lawyers have often been criticized as seeing legal proceedings as the solution to every client problem.
It has become somewhat cliché to say that lawyers have to offer their clients practical solutions, based around an understanding of the client’s needs and affairs.
Doing so requires not just the application of legal knowledge, but the application of legal knowledge by a creative mind skilled at finding creative, practical solutions.
That is much easier to articulate than it is to accomplish in practice. But to accomplish it in practice, and to do so consistently, is critical if the legal profession is to remain relevant.