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29 Jun 2015

The changing role of lawyers

For many years, the primary role of lawyers in most societies has been to assist clients in dealing with “legal issues”. While some “issues” were the result of actions taken by the clients themselves (whether individuals, families or corporate), others were caused by the actions of others. This role was well-suited to an environment where laws remained unchanged for long periods of time, and where there was clarity and unanimity on what constituted a “solution” to the problem at hand. Indeed, this stability in the legal and regulatory regime also limited the “creativity” that lawyers could bring to bear while addressing the issue- there were precedents to go by or other well-defined and generally accepted ways of dealing with the situation.

But in the current environment (not just in India but also globally), laws are changing far more rapidly than ever before. On the one hand, laws are being enacted to deal with new problems, while on the other, existing laws are being revised to give them more teeth and enhance their applicability to emerging situations. This is particularly true in the world of corporate law, where specialised laws are coming into existence to govern specific industry sectors, investment types, investor types, business models etc.

Further, the boundaries between “compliance with the law” and “business decisions” are blurring. Consequently, strategic and operational business decisions are taken because of legal considerations. For example, where a company chooses to locate its resort will depend more on compliance with CRZ criteria and less on the obvious fact that locating it closer to the water body would give it a leg up vis-à-vis competitors. Similarly, if land use rules in State X are less constraining than in State Y, companies will prefer operating in State X, subject to other factors such as infrastructure, proximity to the market, power costs, tax breaks etc. being largely comparable.

As a result, neither clients nor lawyers are as familiar with solution approaches. It is in this context that the role of lawyers is changing. Clients (and corporate clients in particular) are no longer satisfied with a situation where lawyers simply present the pros and cons of various options and ask the client to decide. Clients expect lawyers to help them make the right decisions. They expect lawyers to understand their (the clients’) businesses and anticipate risks and then suggest mitigation mechanisms. A decade or so ago, management consultants found themselves on the hook for implementing the advice they offered. Now, lawyers too are experiencing a similar shift. This has implications not only for how lawyers must interact with clients to elicit information, but also for the scope of work and how engagements are structured.

While knowledge of core and specialised areas of law remain critical, lawyers must also develop the ability to envision the situation from the client’s perspective and anticipate risks. Lawyers must be able to see the various dots around the issue and help clients connect the dots so that they see the big picture and the impact of various courses of action.

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