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Adding non-legal qualifications to your skill set can help you stand out from the pack and future-proof your career.

The business world is full to the brim with lawyers. Blink and you’ll miss another “newlaw” firm launch promising “tech-driven solutions”. But with 33,245 solicitors in NSW, and one third of those solicitors aged between 30 and 40 (according to Practising Solicitor Statistics published by the Law Society of NSW in December 2018), the practical reality is that we are seeing many lawyers jostling for position in a market that is largely homogenous in its skillset and relatively young. Add to this the constant march of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation and we have ourselves a Molotov cocktail of change waiting to ignite.

In a profession ripe for change, some lawyers have gone down the route of obtaining non-legal qualifications, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or other qualifications related to their chief practice area to help them stand out from the pack and future-proof their careers.

The case for business qualifications

We can attribute some of the problems around this bland approach to legal services to the curriculum of our university law schools. Law students are educated in core legal subjects with very little attention to other important aspects of practising law such as managing staff, project-managing large transactions and large litigation matters, or understanding the practical business needs of clients.

The Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (FLIP) report, published by the Law Society in 2017, identified plenty of gaps in the knowledge of our state’s lawyers. It noted that we should consider whether lawyers and law students require business skills, technology skills and project management skills in addition to their legal skills to offer a more comprehensive service to clients and better manage their own business structures and staff.

This year, the College of Law began offering a solution in the form of a Master of Legal Business degree. The proposed curriculum aims to help lawyers better understand the business world as it applies to the legal profession and, for those who manage staff, address the FLIP report findings that management skills may be lacking in practice owners. 

Fiona McLay, Special Counsel at Rankin Business lawyers, has enrolled in the first intake of the Master of Legal Business program. She believes business skills are essential to legal practice. While McLay does not run a law firm, she does practise exclusively in business law remotely from Sydney. Her job requires her to understand the pain points of her clients so she can assist them in what she describes as “a value-driven and holistic way”. 

“Every day I talk to people who run businesses,” says McLay. “By furthering my studies in a business-focussed master’s degree, I want to better appreciate business disciplines so I can speak the same language as my clients. In turn, this will mean I can restructure my client offerings in new ways, including by adopting automations to help my clients in a value-driven and more focussed way.” 

McLay is hopeful the change in focus will also bring more balance to her own life.

Fiona McLay, Special Counsel of Rankin Business lawyers Fiona McLay, Special Counsel of Rankin Business lawyers

I want to better appreciate business disciplines so I can speak the same language as my clients.

“If I can develop new skills to work smarter rather than harder, all the while bringing value to my clients, it will be better for my health,” says McLay. “The traditional way of [lawyers] working long hours can be stressful and difficult for your health.”

The desire to start a business or move into management spurred Lachlan McKnight, CEO and co-founder of LegalVision, to complete an MBA at INSEAD Business School in Singapore in 2010. 

“I had been a corporate lawyer in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Hong Kong for about three years,” says McKnight. “I wanted to stop being a lawyer and do something else.”

McKnight says he was exposed to leadership techniques and networking opportunities he would not have otherwise had while working in law. In fact, he says LegalVision’s first “angel investor” was someone he had met at INSEAD. But perhaps the most significant lesson for McKnight was that starting a business could be an achievable goal for lawyers.

“I’d never really thought about it, but [during my degree] I did electives focussing on entrepreneurs, where speakers came in and talked about how they had started their businesses,” says McKnight. “This gave me a lot of confidence that I could also do it.”

Lachlan McKnight, CEO and co-founder of LegalVision Lachlan McKnight, CEO and co-founder of LegalVision

I did electives focussing on entrepreneurs, where speakers came in and talked about how they had started their businesses. This gave me a lot of confidence that I could also do it.

Future-proofing with technology qualifications

In his 2008 book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, British author and legal technology expert Richard Susskind explored the role of the traditional lawyer considering new business and technology trends. He predicted that “commoditisation and IT [would] shape and characterise twenty-first century legal service”. More than 10 years later, Susskind’s predictions are proving true. We are seeing commoditisation and packaged online legal services that also include IT disruption in the legal services industry. Disruption is forcing lawyers to adapt to and secure their place in the profession. 

When pondering these issues, it is helpful to focus on the positive message underlying Susskind’s book in which he viewed this change as opportunity rather than defeat, writing, “The challenge is not how to assess how commoditisation and IT might threaten the current work of lawyers … It is to find and embrace better, quicker, less costly and more convenient, and publicly valued ways of working”.

Jessica Newman, a senior associate at Minter Ellison who recently completed an MBA majoring in technology, is one lawyer adapting to and embracing disruption. On her choice to pursue her chosen course of study, Newman says, “I wanted to develop my understanding of the strategic use and management of technology within large organisations in addition to [furthering] my managerial and leadership skills”. 

Newman has practised since 2010 and realised that an MBA would help differentiate her skillset within the legal technology niche by helping her communicate better with clients and improve long-term career and promotion prospects. 

Newman currently holds a position as Director on a not-for-profit board in addition to her legal role. She says her newly acquired non-legal qualifications have helped her “develop a broader skillset to contribute to the board in a wider range of areas”. Newman hopes her board experience and broader technology qualifications will lead to other board appointments in the future.

Anne-Marie Cade, Family Lawyer Anne-Marie Cade, Family Lawyer

Essentially, I teach my clients to make good decisions.

Upskilling in family law 

It is not only business or management subjects that are being taught differently. Family law is also being looked at with fresh eyes – incorporating more collaborative law and mediation approaches. Family lawyer Anne-Marie Cade has recently completed her Certified Divorce Coaching (CDC) qualification with the United States-based CDC College for Divorce Coaching, Florida.

Now, in addition to practising as a family lawyer and nationally accredited mediator, Cade is also a certified “divorce coach” and “divorce transition and recovery coach”. It’s a qualification that is rare in Australia. Cade says she was attracted to the idea of divorce coaching because of how it is viewed in other countries, particularly the US.

“The American Bar Associates recognises divorce coaching as an alternative dispute resolution method,” says Cade. “I [undertook the course to] add a new dimension to the work I do with clients going through separation and divorce. Through the course I learned the tools to help my clients move themselves out of the story of divorce and into the business of managing divorce.”

Cade sees divorce coaching as a practical role helping clients make decisions beyond the black-letter law. It requires emotional intelligence, careful communication and navigation through complex legal challenges involved in a divorce.

“I help clients identify and manage their emotional responses,” says Cade. “I teach them the skills to handle conflict and improve communication. Essentially, I teach my clients to make good decisions. Law school does not teach you to manage these emotional skills.

“My goal is to work with clients to help them heal and get over divorce, manage the conflict, reframe their relationship, finalise the paperwork, and move on to the next chapter of their lives.”

Jessica Newman, Senior Associate at Minter Ellison Jessica Newman, Senior Associate at Minter Ellison

I wanted to develop my understanding of the strategic use and management of technology within large organisations in addition to [furthering] my managerial and leadership skills.

Making time for study

In a busy practice with typical life administration thrown in, how can lawyers go about fitting further study into their already jam-packed schedules? Caitlin Akthar, a criminal lawyer based in Coffs Harbour, is close to completing a master’s degree while working full time. She says that, while it may sound obvious, organisation is key.

“I map out all my due dates and schedule in time to work on my assignments and study,” says Akthar. “I generally do my study after my kids go to bed. I have drawn up a time budget and tried to replace leisure time with study time. I cut out watching television, too. That way I get to keep my sleep, which, as a parent of young kids, I’m not willing to give up”.

Akthar admits that late-night study after work does not fit into an attractive routine for many lawyers. However, she says something has to give. She also says lawyers should not be afraid to outsource other household duties to free up study time.

“I don’t clean the house. I had to outsource that,” says Akthar. “It’s expensive but the way I see it, it’s an investment because I am hoping the money I spend on a cleaner now will come back to me in increased earnings in the future.

“Besides, studying brings me far more joy than cleaning.”

Are non-legal qualifications the way of the future?

The motivations for these lawyers in pursuing non-legal qualifications are strikingly different. But they are all making a unique mark in the legal profession by adding value to their career prospects, the industry and their clients. By adding to their legal skill sets in this way, they are also future-proofing their careers in an era of technological uncertainty.