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Augmented Skills in Legal Delivery.

In the last article, the current legal education system was criticised as the same tool that reproduces our legal hierarchy, as Professor Kennedy has already observed almost 4 decades ago. Accessibility to justice, something that law school preaches, is difficult to achieve because of the hierarchy it secures. This article looks into the legal industry and points out that the legal education received by our fellow lawyers-to-be may not be sufficient in certain perspectives. Modern, yet antiquated, legal education focuses on the application of law, which is undoubtedly necessary. However, I believe the delivery of legal services is equally, if not more, important. Indeed, the skills in legal delivery are essential whether serving customers in traditional firms or innovative alternative legal services providers.

Lawyers, or the legal industry at large, are essentially service providers. We contribute to the tertiary sector of our economies. However, there seems to be no training at all on how to deliver such services before entering the profession. There are certainly courses such as contracts drafting, letters writing, negotiation skills and the like in the year of so-called professional studies (the Postgraduate Certificate in Laws in Hong Kong), after the graduation of our law degrees. But here, we are referring to the more wholistic skills in serving your customers, or the “augmented skills in legal delivery” stressed by Mark Cohen. These skills may involve project management, active listening skills, communication skills, application of technology and so on. Throughout the long history of legal services provision, the industry has relied heavily upon “on-the-job training” for (some of) these skills. Some may think that this approach has worked quite well. After all, lawyers are still well respected (arguably in some cases) and highly paid (relatively to some) for their services. Wouldn’t these practical skills only be possibly acquired via hands-on training and years of experience anyways?

The “augmented skills” could of course be acquired via “on-the-job training”, but this does not mean that such skills shall not be introduced during the early years of legal education. While customers (and also law firms) are looking for “T-shaped” or even “O-shaped” lawyers, wouldn’t it be sensible for law students to at least acknowledge the skills demanded in the industry before entering as a professional? In fact, even if we include industry’s “on-the-job training” into the wide definition of legal education, it still fails to serve our customers today. As observed in the last article, the dynamic world is evolving rapidly, and the legal industry is expected to experience some huge inevitable changes once businesses resume their operations from the pandemic. While our system of legal education remains unchanged for decades, one may ask whether our law graduates could serve, as identified by Cohen, the “more customer-focused, collaborative, data-driven, agile, and output-oriented” legal industry now. The traditional firms seem to find it hard in streamlining the processes because of the lack of project management and business operation skills. While the pandemic has demonstrated the necessity of technology in the global lockdown, these firms are prominently reluctant in responding to the urgent changes, simply because it is outside their scope of knowledge.

While lawyers are so occupied by all the cases and tasks, they would less likely be available, both in terms of time and energy, to learn new skills. Therefore, training at the early stage of legal education in law schools (or supplementary courses) could definitely help. Law students could learn these augmented skills alongside the laws. They could enter the industry with a more solid foundation, at least with some basics. Not only do they know what is a contract and how to draft it, but also how to talk to their customers, understand their needs, utilise technology (and artificial intelligence), manage projects and operations, build relationships and deliver in simple language for laymen non-lawyer customers to actually understand. A 21st century lawyer needs much more than simply knowing the law.

Chris Fong