Lawyers use words like masons lay stones. Words are tools of the legal trade. It’s odd, then, that one of the most important words in the legal lexicon, “upskilling,” is scarcely known to most legal professionals. That will change soon—here’s why.
Upskilling is a term well-known to business. In the micro context, It refers to the process of individuals learning new skills. On the macro level, it describes a tectonic shift in the workplace caused by technology. Technology has created new possibilities that can be fully realized only by a modernized workforce. That means the workforce must learn new skills and competencies that are required for new and/or changing jobs. Upskilling cuts across industries—law included. It is critical to individuals and employers alike.
Why has upskilling suddenly become so important? Short answer: digital transformation. The digital economy, enabled by astonishing advances in technology, is reimagining the provider-customer dynamic and transforming how goods and services are bought and sold. Customer-centric, tech-enabled, well-capitalized, new model providers are disrupting incumbents across industries. They share several core characteristics: a relentless commitment to improve customer access, experience, and loyalty; the efficient use of data; achieving “more with less” for the benefit of customers, employees, and shareholders; and constant improvement. Their models are built from the customer perspective, not to fit the provider economic model.
This sea-change means that many traditional jobs are morphing into something different or disappearing altogether. Upskilling is the process of preparing the workforce to fill these new positions. To borrow from Wayne Gretzky, upskilling is instilling competencies that enable workers and companies to “skate to where the puck will be.”
Upskilling entails learning new skills, but it also involves a cultural shift and change management. To be competitive in the digital age, individuals and corporations require a learning-for-life mindset, collaboration—with humans and machines– and a willingness to embrace new ways of doing things. It also requires a global perspective, agile adaptation, cultural diversity and awareness, a global perspective, basic competency in technology and data analytics, people skills (EQ), and abandoning a zero-sum approach to advancement, The digital age requires that workers—no matter the industry–have technical skills and an ability to acquire new competencies required by a remarkably fast-paced, fluid marketplace where legacy boundaries separating industries are increasingly blurred.
The legal industry is not immune to this transformation. It’s just resistant—especially among lawyers– to material change.
The Skills Gap
Business is acutely aware of the importance of upskilling. There is a wide gap between vacant positions requiring new skills and competent candidates to fill them. This is often referred to as the skills gap. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that nearly 60 percent of U.S. employers have job openings that stay vacant for 12 weeks or longer. HR managers say extended job vacancies cost the company more than $800,000 annually.
The skills gap has been on economists’ radar screens for some time. A 2016 joint report by the World Economic Forum and The Boston Consulting Group concluded that “managing skills in the digital age requires organizations to harness technology that enables them to leverage a data-driven approach to lifelong learning and smart upskilling”. A 2017 report by Capgemini and LinkedIn revealed that “over half (54%) of the organizations surveyed said that the digital talent gap is hampering their digital transformation programs and that their organization has lost competitive advantage because of a shortage of digital talent.”
The skills gap helps explain why several leading companies are investing heavily in upskilling. Amazon, for example recently announced a commitment of over $700M to its Upskilling 2025 program, an internal training initiative to promote customer satisfaction and worker advancement. Upskilling has become a corporate priority essential to hiring, developing, and retaining the best talent to continue to constantly improve on behalf of customers. The good news is that not only are companies like Amazon investing in their workforce—to better serve customers—but they are also identifying the specific competencies required for jobs yet to be created. This requires rigorous mapping, identification of core competencies, and a commitment to follow-through on the upskilling process. It is a significant investment in the future of the workforce and customer relationships. Most legal providers have yet to make this investment.
Is It Any Surprise That Legal Upskilling Is Lagging?
Legal professionals trail other industries in digital readiness. Gartner reports that only 19% of in-house legal teams are well-prepared to support enterprise digital transformation. The lack of digital readiness is even lower among law firms. Most legal professionals—including General Counsels and their teams—are unequipped to deliver the transformative legal services that business clients demand. To service digital clients, legal professions must be proactive, agile, collaborative, digitally experienced, and function at the intersection of law, technology, and business. Global perspective, cultural awareness, agile teams, constant learning and improvement, are critical transformative skills and competencies presently considered outside the core knowledge of the law.
The legal industry has a skills gap that reflects the guild hangover and entrenched views of its key stakeholders—law schools, firms, and even most in-house departments. These stakeholders are loathe to respond to changing consumer expectations of the legal function. Lawyers no longer define legal tasks—legal consumers do. That’s why the practice of law is shrinking and the business of delivering legal services is expanding. Practice skills will be required by fewer lawyers but delivery skills will be essential for most. Legal educators and most employers have yet to read the memo. The legal establishment’s failure to respond to this market reality is exacerbating an already growing legal skills gap. The problem will accelerate when consumers put more pressure on providers—and not necessarily “legal” ones—to do more with less and to better serve them.
Why Does Law’s Skills Gap Go Relatively Unnoticed?
Why is law’s skills gap rarely discussed much less addressed meaningfully? For starters, the industry remains internally-focused; profit-per-partner (PPP) makes headlines but net-promoter-score (NPS) barely registers mention. It’s the same story with legal delivery models. The legal press provides blanket coverage of peripatetic partners (laterals), firm mergers, and innovation award recipients, but it rarely examines new legal delivery models, multidisciplinary collaboration, or the impact of digital transformation on the legal industry?
Law school rankings are monitored like the stock market but little coverage is given to a handful of upskilling programs like The Institute for the Future Practice of Law (IFLP),LawWithoutWalls (LWOW) that are tackling the problem, though not at scale. A handful of foreign law schools including Bucerius, IE, The College of Law (Australia), and St. Gallen are embedding upskilling into their curricula, but they too draw scant domestic notice.
Singapore: Where Upskilling Is A National Initiative
Singapore, renowned for “punching above its weight” in technology and fintech, is likely the world’s most digital nation. It’s no surprise, then, that the Government has tasked the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) to apply digital principles to the legal function. SAL is galvanizing all segments of the legal ecosystem in this effort—Government, the judiciary, regulators, business, the Academy, and international thought leaders. Singapore’s efforts to modernize the legal industry speak to the power of identifying objectives, rigorous analysis, problem solving, pressure testing solutions, collaboration, implementation, and scaled adoption.
One of SAL’s many noteworthy initiatives is Development Maps of LIFTED, a mapping of competencies for legal practitioners and allied legal professionals. The program was designed and implemented by LIFTED, SAL’s educational arm, to create clearer professional development pathways and learning journeys to guide successful legal careers.The mapping has been developed into a learning needs and program recommendation web application app.lifted.sg. The app is robust in its taxonomy of digital age legal positions, required competencies, and self-serve tools for mastery. The mapping is also integrated with a multi-industry national skills upgrading portal known as MySkillsFuture. Singapore provides upskilling on a societal level.
Lawyers and other legal professionals will soon be familiar with upskilling. This is not a term to be tossed around lightly—like innovation, for example. Nor is it a one-size-fits-all panacea to prepare for a legal career. Upskilling is a multi-step, lifelong process. It starts with a rudimentary understanding of the legal industry and a recognition that law is now about clients, not lawyers. The industry is not solely about lawyers; it is equally about other professionals and paraprofessionals that are all legal professionals.
Upskilling is also about choice and opportunity—what role(s) does one seek to play in the profession/industry and what competencies are required? Unfortunately, most law schools fail to provide meaningful guidance to students in this area. That must change.
Upskilling is best delivered—as in Singapore—via an integrated, stakeholder-aligned, multi-dimensional process. This may not be feasible in larger nations. In the US, for example Amazon and other large multinationals are helping by committing substantial investment in the individual for the betterment of the company and its customers. Most law firms do not take this long-term investment approach not only because of their partnership models but also because they have yet to materially change their practice-centric cultures, lawyer-centric hiring practices, and zero-sum mindsets. Most legal professionals—at least for now—will have to upskill largely on their own.
Technology enhances the opportunity for the global legal industry to collaborate and to address its skills gap at scale. The first step is to acknowledge this is a global challenge and that no nation has a monopoly on good ideas how to solve it. It’s not artificial intelligence that will marginalize legal professionals but it might be their failure to upskill that will.