It is said that law school teaches you how to “think like a lawyer.” This largely takes the form of being able to identify any number of risks and outcomes. Yet we are rarely asked in law school to identify what risks are acceptable and which outcomes are the most desirable. This does not reflect the real world where context is everything and one risk in one context can look very different in another context.
Yet to understand different contexts requires being able to bridge the divides between different worlds like the world of the law, the world of technology, and the world of business. What this means is that lawyers need to become multilingual – being able to communicate across disciplines like legal, technology, and business. It’s often been said that reading a legal document is like reading something in a foreign language. A client doesn’t want to translate what their trusted advisor tells them or creates for them. They need to know what it says and how to proceed.
I recall a time earlier in my career when I was tasked with reviewing a complex product development agreement. I started to read it and felt lost immediately. There were references to things I had not encountered in my career before, like an A/B test, Cost of Delay framework, and Continuous Integration. I felt like I was reading another language. I knew that I needed help understanding what I was reading, so I connected with the business leader of the agreement, and we worked to understand the deal. I didn’t just take the time to learn these business terms. I also took the initiative to educate this individual on the meaning and importance of some of the legal terms I often looked for and negotiated.
Clients move fast and they must in a world as dynamic as the one that exists today. Clients have grown to rely on different technologies, on data-driven decision-making, and are expecting more. In response, their legal resources must meet them where they are, understand their needs, and communicate with them about the best next steps to take and why. This reliance on tech and data has changed the meaning of what it means to think like a lawyer. Thinking like a lawyer now demands that lawyers be able to speak the language of business and the language of technology. Lawyers, this means being able to be both literate in the language of the law, but in the language of data and numbers as well. Lawyers need to be quantitatively literate and use data to drive how they advise clients on go-forward strategies. It also demands that lawyers be able to adapt and quickly, a point made even more clear by the Covid-19 pandemic.
I wanted to become a lawyer because I saw the practice of law as needing to solve puzzles and the puzzle pieces can come from various sources and in many shapes and sizes. To solve the puzzles of today we must listen and learn from others. Whether you work in a firm or inside a business, the importance of understanding a client and their needs is more important than ever.
So how do we meet the moment and change? It starts with recognizing the cultural changes that impede and inhibit change. One roadblock is the tendency to act in a silo. As lawyers, we are often taught that when it comes to the law that we are the single source of truth for a client. While this may be true strictly for the law, we do not know everything, and we are not the single source of truth for everything. We need to open ourselves up to admitting when we do not know something and welcoming learning from others. We need to talk less and listen more to learn and get to know our clients and their businesses. To not do so would be doing them and ourselves a disservice since we would lack the context and details that help better define what decision needs to be made and why. Another cultural roadblock is a fear of technology. I get it. I feared technology once as well because I saw it in my early days as a high school student as cumbersome, hard to learn, and complicated. Technology has come a long way since then and clients are more tech-savvy than ever. We must overcome our fear of tech and see technology as yet another set of tools in our lawyer toolbox to help us.
It is incumbent for lawyers to work in cross-disciplinary ways because the world is multi-disciplinary, and any decision made by a client is made in the context of the world today. Thinking like a lawyer today means thinking like a client – understanding their needs, their motivations, their thinking and translating what the law does or does not allow into their language – the language of numbers, technology, and data. I am not going to sugarcoat this and say that to be multilingual is easy, but neither is becoming a lawyer and being a practicing attorney. Clients are not going to wait for you to become multilingual, they will find someone who is.
About the Author
Colin S. Levy
Colin S. Levy embraces technology and challenges the status quo. His legal career has focused on where business, technology, and the law intersect. Colin is Director of Legal and Evangelist for Malbek, a leading Contract Lifecycle Management company. He is a well-known legal technology advocate, speaker, and writer.