What Biglaw Can Learn from California Tech

I was born and raised in San Francisco and lived there for most of my adult life before moving to Singapore and then to London, so it's safe to say I'm partial to a very California way of thinking. You might say I left my heart in San Francisco (and you'd be right). I can rattle off the names of friends who work in tech in San Francisco and the Bay Area generally - at Apple, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Lyft, Facebook, Square, Uber, Etsy, Box. It's the lifeblood of the economy in my home-city, and while it has its own issues (for example this, and this) I believe there are some lessons that Biglaw could stand to learn from more agile, less entrenched, more meritocratic organisations.

Look past someone's degree. We all know Mark Zuckerberg didn't graduate uni - that's part of his lore. It didn't stop him from founding Facebook which is, to put it casually, a valuable and thriving company. What is less well-know is the fact that it's quite possible to get one of many well-paying, highly-respected roles in tech without a university degree. There are contributors at tech companies big and small who either didn't go to uni, or went to universities that are decidedly not fancy. Consider Jack Dorsey. Jack was one of the co-founder of Twitter and is their current CEO. Jack initially attended Missouri University of Science and Technology (a far cry from the Ivy League) and later dropped out of NYU without a degree. Obviously as lawyers we have specific degrees that are required for practice, but Biglaw would be well-advised to look past Oxbridge and The Russell Group to find talented associates. Some of the associates who have impressed me most in the London market did not attend ritzy universities, but instead have had to fight their way to the top. Law firms would be very different places if they were pure meritocracies.

Hire outside the box. I've recently helped two associates move practice areas (capital markets --> private client and project finance --> film and TV). I respect the firms that have taken these chances on my candidates, because in doing so they are recognizing the various applications of talent. A good lawyer is a good lawyer, and a new sector can be learned. Tech does this beautifully. A tech founder could, as in the case of Jack Dorsey, found Twitter and then move into the mobile payment space. Seeing the portability of associates' skills could pay massive dividends for firms. Talent is talent. Hire it when you see it.

The skills that were valued a generation ago may not be what's required in 2017. If you're over 35, how many of your classmates were passionate about their computer science degree? Not many. But in 2017, it's one of the hottest degrees going at American universities. The law is not static, and while the fundamentals remain the same (research, writing, client interactions, advocacy, technical know-how) it is increasingly important that associates have a strong commercial sense and comfort with emerging technologies. While some practice areas remain quite traditional, firms should focus on fostering future-forward associates who are ready for what the law is becoming. One of my clients is at the forefront of the tech revolution - Sheridans accepts bitcoin and has since 2014. Talk about being ahead of the curve.

Agile working breeds creative solutions. It's fairly standard in the tech world for a mass of programmers to cruise into the office in hoodies and remain that way all day. Working from home is not just an option but encouraged and a very normal part of the culture. Does this lead to slacking and disappointing results? On the contrary, the metrics show that workers in San Francisco are clocking more hours than any other US city. While some firms in London have introduced some agile working opportunities, it's still quite frowned upon at many firms when associates actually take them up on it. My advice to firms is to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Let your associates work in the way that's best for them, and watch as their productivity increases.

Law firms are sturdy, long-established structures, and change is hard. But I think there are some lessons to be learned from how tech companies in my (thriving) hometown hire and support their staff. Onwards and upwards!