What skills do Tomorrow’s Lawyers need today?

Reflections on a lecture by Mark Cohen

In November, Mark Cohen gave a lecture to a class of Bucerius Law School international exchange students on skills for the 21st century lawyer. The course, ‘Law Firms of Tomorrow,’ helped prepare us for the changes the legal market is going to face in the coming years as we begin our careers around the world. Cohen shed some light on what skills young lawyers like myself should look to gain as we enter the field: 1) to know the basics of doctrinal law; 2) to understand the dynamic of how to practice law, including client management; and 3) to be intellectually nimble and agile – look beyond our law firm, the traditional firm structure, and local bar associations to see what’s going on in the industry at large. We need to be prepared for the shift coming to the industry and appreciate the fact that we cannot just get a degree, follow up on case law in our field, and learn on the job. “Young lawyers should look to build up the skills needed for the path they want to follow, not the skills needed in the past,” Cohen said.

Cohen explained to us that the industry and its lawyers cannot thrive into the future without a baseline of business acumen and an understanding of how technology, process, and delivery structures/economic models are transforming the delivery of legal services. Law is no longer just about lawyers, he said, and we need to include technologists, data analysts, process managers and more in the discussion. All of these pieces are now working together to make law more accessible, efficient, and cost-effective.

The first skillset I will focus on is using data and technology. Traditionally, lawyers liked “to base opinions on anatomical parts,” Cohen told us, saying things like “my gut tells me we should, or my nose says…”.  This will not work much longer. Data-driven decisions are necessary and are superior, but law has been “slow getting to the data party.” For a young lawyer, building skills in this area might mean attending conferences, seminars, classes, and more that teach me how to use legal technology. But it will also mean seeking out ways to incorporate data analytics and technology into my daily work at the law firm if the office isn’t already doing so. It might mean pushing for that move and serving on a law firm’s technology task force. We learned throughout our class how accepting change in the legal market is difficult for some, especially for law firm partners who have thrived with things the way they are. As a young lawyer, I will need to be at the forefront of accepting change and utilizing technology as an integrated part of my practice.

Cohen described the shift in the legal market as going from “the practice of law” to “the business of providing legal services.” The latter requires a different suite of skillsets, has a more corporate personality, and has business in its DNA more than law firms. Thus, the other skill I will continue to prioritize is learning how businesses work. This might mean focusing on a certain industry where I find my practice gravitating towards or continuing to learn to speak the language that corporations speak – understanding accounting, finance, marketing, trade, and more. Learning how to think like a businesswoman will help me better serve my clients and also ensure that I (and my law firm) can compete in the new legal market.

Despite all the emphasis on business and technology, soft skills and a commitment to diversity are and will continue to be vital to young lawyers’ success. Cohen shared a motto with us that he used to use when he was a managing partner at a law firm: “Don’t check your humanity at the door.” He told us to “be yourself, bring in your experiences and background,” and use that to provide the best solutions for your client. Change is uncomfortable and difficult; sometimes it brings out the worst in people. As our industry approaches inevitable change in the near future (arguably right now), it will be ever more important for young lawyers to stay grounded and true to who they are, and to be able to accept difference. I will practice coming back to my core and knowing my strengths and shortcomings, as well as understanding the strengths and weaknesses of co-workers and clients around me.

Lastly, lawyers shouldn’t be afraid to fail. Cohen reminded us to follow what gets us up in the morning and inspires us. If it doesn’t work out as planned, like Clearspire didn’t for Cohen, then the only failure would be an inability to learn from that experience. Lawyers are trained to “avoid mistakes,” but Cohen encouraged the group to take studied risks. As young lawyers we feel a lot of pressure to perform, succeed, and work a lot. The pressure naturally brings a sense of rigidity and feeling stuck, afraid to change for fear of failing. Cohen told us a mistake from a well-thought out plan or action is not failure as long as you grow from it. Learning to take these studied risks is certainly a skill that I will look to build, and a skill that comes more easily with confidence. It’s hard for a new lawyer to feel confident, but knowing and appreciating our individual strengths can help get us there.


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Amara Lopez, University of Michigan Law School


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