The 3 types of professional work and how the changes between them reflect our changing industry

11 Dec 2013

Within any given industry built on professional services, there have always been three established working models, or ‘types’, of work. In the legal industry, the spread between these types has always been quite focused on one or, at most, two of the working types, but with recent legislation and industry structure changes, are we now reaching a point where the structures governing what we do are changing? How will this impact our profession?

The 3 types of work

Rocket science – this is novel, ground-breaking work, solving a problem that had never been solved before or did not exist previously. Genuine rocket science, despite the fact that all professional industries are full of very well qualified people, is rare, because a new problem can only ever be solved once before the type of work moves down the chain. People or firms offering rocket science skills charge high fees and carry out extremely bespoke work, likely to be for a relatively low number of people or businesses who have encountered the problem.

Grey hair – as the problem solved by the rocket scientists becomes more widespread, the knowledge required to solve it becomes decentralised, and is acquired by other qualified individuals and firms. These are still highly qualified specialists and the problem the work solves is still often bespoke or non-standard in nature. The work needs to be carried out accurately and effectively, with skill and experience. Most legal work, up to this point, arguably resides in this group.

Process – what once might have been rocket science has now become such a honed set of tasks that it can be followed, within a guiding system, as a set of familiar activities to complete, in order to achieve a recogniseable outcome to a problem. These tasks must be performed correctly and efficiently to achieve the desired results but ultimately the work is able to be completed because it has all been seen before. The essence of success in this type of work is down to efficiency in the templates, processes and systems.

The changing legal industry

Inevitably, over time, professional work in all industries will move downwards through the three types of work. As soon as something has been done once it can no longer be rocket science and when something has been done so many times that the rules become established and easy to follow, it changes into a process.

The legal industry has remained comparatively resistant to this downward movement but, over time, it is inevitable that elements of our work too will move towards becoming a process.

New legal problems, or specific ‘twists’ on old problems, will always arise and will need rocket science to be solved, but established legal situations, which have now had the benefit of years of experience committed to them, will continue to move downward through the types of work.

Current examples approaching or already in the process stage include high volume personal industry work and high volume conveyancing, but as the industry deregulates and continues to change significantly, this is about to change.

More work will move down into the process category, which in turn will mean more firms can service that kind of work. Increased competition will force down prices and because these prices will be forced down across more kinds of legal work, revenues as a whole may fall.

The industry, as with so many changes that will come with deregulation, will have to adapt to these new kinds of challenges, new charging models and new ways of serving the client, whose demands and expectations will change along with the type of work.


This topic formed part of our Lawyer Of The Future presentation and white paper, which you can download here.