In this edition of our How to become series, we deep dive into the emerging field of legal technology.
In our How to become series, we explore a range of different tech and digital career choices, zooming in on what different roles entail, routes into employment, and the skills required, plus case studies of individuals already working in the sector. In the following edition, we’ll discuss legal technologists, whose jobs involve recognising areas in the legal sector requiring technological innovation, and building solutions.
What is legal technology? An overview
Legal technology refers to the use of technology and digital tools to provide legal services, or support the delivery of legal services. The role of Legal technologists, therefore, is wide ranging, but commonly involves identifying opportunities to use technology in legal services, in order to harness solutions that streamline legal service delivery.
Legal technology can be built in-house by innovation departments at large law firms, or might be provided by one of many different LawTech startups. In-house innovation or legal technology departments at global firms are increasingly common, for example at Ashurst, and Norton Rose Fulbright’s Transform. Tech Nation estimates that there are around 200 LawTech startups in the UK, employing 7,100 people, and attracting £674m of private investment (up to the end of 2020). Alongside this, various law firms have departments dedicated to advising tech and digital businesses on acquisitions, mergers, and more, giving even solicitors with firm backgrounds in law an insight into the tech and digital innovation.
We chatted to Alexander Malt from Norton Rose Fulbright, about what legal technology is and how the role of legal technologists ties into this…
“Legal technology refers to technologies designed for lawyers. These can be based on existing technologies or can be developed from scrap. We have seen an emergence of various legal tech tools that are designed for more specialised use cases. For example, machine learning platforms for contract reviews, or collaboration software that produces secure online environments where people can deposit deals in a transaction.
Of course, law firms require a high level of quality, which means you can't just throw documents into a system and expect the right answers to come out. The legal software requires supervision and is always expected to be used by someone providing the legal service, as opposed to being a complete replacement for the legal service. Essentially, legal technology can streamline an industry which has previously been very traditional.
A Legal technologist is quite a new role in the legal industry – and what the role involves does differ from firm to firm. Within Norton Rose Fulbright, it's always going to be about deploying and using legal technology. The way we view it is we want our legal technologist to have quite an active role at really pushing what our tech can do, so it's not just about being an internal salesman. We try to use out of the box solutions as much as possible; our legal technologists are expected to be proficient in designing legal processes (so that could be registering intellectual property or trademarks), and understanding how you go about those processes, selecting the technology to do it, and building a solution which is primarily effective. Legal technologists want something which works well. We don't expect legal technologists to be full data scientists, but legal technologists should understand how to do basic reporting using software to keep people up-to-date, and should be able to complete basic data analysis (which could be for legal purposes or it might be do with the tech itself). If we build a solution, we want to know whether it will deliver value. So, all in all, legal technologists do bits of process, bits of deploying and leveraging tech, and bits of reporting using basic data analytics.”
Routes into a legal technology career
The majority of routes into legal technology require at least a degree, and usually a postgraduate qualification alongside this.
The entry requirements for legal technology postgraduate training contracts may influence what degree you choose to do: the most relevant undergraduate degrees will most likely be either in Law itself, or in a STEM subject. Here are some North East based (or online) courses which you might consider to support your steps towards a legal technology career:
- BSc Computer Science – University of Sunderland
- Law LLB Honours – Newcastle University
- MSc Legal Technology – University of Law
Law can be a tough industry to break into, so it’s worthwhile to supplement your education with networking, and attending relevant local events.
Alongside this, don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities: you could contact local law firms or legal tech startups to ask for work experience or volunteering opportunities. Seeking to add value for others is a great way to learn!
If you have a strong legal background but limited technical knowledge, it would be worthwhile to learn the basics of a coding language of your choice, or play around with no-code platforms.
Finally, EDX offers a variant of Harvard University’s introduction to computer science, “designed specifically for lawyers”. The free 10 week course covers a range of topics including programming languages, cybersecurity, cryptography and cloud computing. Register for the programme here!
Legal technology training contracts
Next to the completion of a degree, the most distinct route into legal tech is through a training contract at a law firm. We’ve rounded up some of the best legal technology training contracts below:
- Advanced Delivery Graduate Programme – Allen & Overy
What are they looking for? AAB at A-Level and a STEM or Economics degree.
Will I qualify as a solicitor? No.
What will I be doing? “You’ll rotate through various areas in Advanced Delivery & Solutions – our Markets Innovation Group, Project Management Office, Legal Tech and Fuse or eDiscovery teams.”
- IGNITE – Clifford Chance
What are they looking for? Graduates with a STEM background or keep interest in tech, who “might have studied computer science. Or taught (them)self to code in the evenings”.
Will I qualify as a solicitor? Yes.
What will I be doing? You’ll be completing a training contract with a focus on tech, supporting Clifford Chance “To reconsider what tech can do for law”; “To redesign and streamline the way (Clifford Chance) operate”; “redefine how (Clifford Chance) deliver the best results”.
- Business and Legal Operations Graduate Scheme – Norton Rose Fulbright Transform
What are they looking for? Students from any discipline!
Will I qualify as a solicitor? No.
What will I be doing? Following a two year programme which mirrors a traditional training contract, but instead focusing on “improving operational efficiency”; “Developing tech-enabled solutions”; “Consulting with clients”; “Modernising (Norton Rose Fulbright)”; “Commercialising (Norton Rose Fulbright)’s offering”.
- Ashurst ADVANCE Pathway Programme – Ashurst
What are they looking for? Law graduates.
Will I qualify as a solicitor? No.
What will I be doing? “Transforming client service” by supporting the evolution of how Ashurst’s legal services are delivered. The programme offers “specialist opportunities for Law graduates seeking an alternative to a traditional legal role”, including pathway opportunities in legal tech.
Legal technology startup development programmes
Alternatively, you might already have an idea to change the face of legal tech. There are plenty of startup development programmes designed to specifically support legal tech startups and aspiring entrepreneurs.
- MDR LAB – Mishcon de Reya
Mishcon de Reya’s MDR LAB “is a series of programmes that seek to launch, improve and scale the next generation of LegalTech”. The programmes are open to early stage and growth startups!
- Collaborate – Slaughter and May
Legal tech programme Collaborate is open to “innovators and entrepreneurs at all stages, with products relevant to the legal tech sector”. Whilst the programme is “primarily aimed at early and mid-stage ventures”, “there is no minimum size/shape/age/financial position” required for acceptance onto the programme.
- Fuse – Allen and Overy
Fuse is an innovation space by Allen and Overy, where lawyers and tech providers “can experiment with, develop and test legal, regulatory and deal-related solutions”.
Alexander Malt – Hub Innovation Manager at Norton Rose Fulbright
“So, I was an aspiring academic; I did PPE as an undergraduate, and then specialised in philosophy. I ended up focusing specifically on language and thought, and through exposure to linguistics that became syntax, grammar and thought. I ended up writing about that for my PhD. It ended up being really useful preparation for my job, as it was about firstly, how you can generate linguistic statements using computational rules, which basically meant that when I started in my role I was able to do things like create my own document automators effectively, just using Microsoft excel and basic coding. It also gave me an understanding of artificial intelligence, and the relationship between AI and language.
I was also interested in Bitcoin, so after my I moved to Canada for a bit. I tried to get involved in the Bitcoin scene - I ended up doing some lectures on blockchain and political technology. When I came back to the UK I knew that I was really interested in smart contracts, so perhaps I should be a lawyer! So I wrote to lots of different law firms and someone from Norton Rose Fulbright wrote back, and on the back of that ended up asking if they had any paralegal positions. So, I ended up as a paralegal in the Newcastle hub. I spotted opportunities to use some of the tricks I'd picked up to automate certain tasks and speed up processes. So I found myself writing code and how-to manuals, plus training more people on how to do this stuff. I developed basic applications using the Microsoft Office internal language, coding things like automation routines - it's very interesting work! Eventually I was offered the Innovation Manager position, to lead the team in Newcastle, and that's also when I started the data science initiative. I think data science is the next big step after process and tech!
Currently I’ve been seconded, meaning I handed my managerial responsibilities to someone else. I try to have a weekly catch up with everyone in the team, to see how everything is going and whether there’s any blockers which need clearing. There’s also a more strategic element to my role – I rely on other people to do the building, coding and delivery side, then I tend to try to bring work in, scope them, and understand what’s required. There’s also lots of discussion about where we should be going, and what new capabilities we should be producing. For example, we might make systems more modular, so they talk to each other in a more interesting way, rather than using a monolithic application which we copy from client to client.
I guess I lucked out and went into legal tech in a good way, as I went in wanting to be a lawyer then realised I wanted to work on the technology side. If you’re aiming in a career in legal tech itself, try to work in a legal function for a while – even as a paralegal, you get to see what’s involved, what the purpose of an organisation is, and understand that in granular detail. If you can understand what a law firm does, then you’ll develop a better understanding of the situation on the ground, and the day-to-day problems which the legal industry faces that require legal technology. It’ll give you a grounded, common-sense understanding of the importance of the technology you’re using, and how it should be used. Otherwise, coming in from a computer science background, you could find that the legal services sector doesn’t make sense to you. But if you work in it for a while and immerse yourself in it, then you’ll understand how and why things are done the way they are, and a strong contextual framework to understand how your role in legal tech can best help deliver legal services.
Alongside this, process skills are probably the single most important thing that someone wanting to get into legal tech would need to develop. Process beats technology as a general rule, as technology amplifies process – it enables you to do more, but you only want to be amplifying rationality and sanity. If you have an understanding of process engineering then that will give you an edge in how you can work, rather than naïvely using the technology (i.e. accurately deploying the functionality but missing the bigger picture).”
Non-technical roles in legal technology
The role of a Legal Technologist is a fairly new job and one of many career pathways into the world of legal technology. Another pathway would be that of a solicitor who specialises in legal technology, advising tech businesses with their needs. This is exactly what Tom Justice is doing over at Muckle:
Tom Justice – Solicitor at Muckle LLP
“I didn’t even consider studying Law at first, and actually studied English at the University of Hull. After being asked endlessly whether I was going to be an English teacher, I decided to pursue a career befitting my last name. A lot of my friends studied Law and it sounded really interesting, so I moved to Newcastle to do a Law conversion course.
After I graduated, I trained with Muckle and qualified into a role in the Commercial team in 2016. As a team we cover such a varied amount of work, including tech and innovation – which I love. It’s fun working with creative individuals and helping bring their ideas to fruition.
The Muckle team cover a range of commercial services, so the type of work I’m involved with is so different and varied. My day is usually a combination of telephone calls and meetings with clients, providing advice by email and drafting contracts. Sometimes a bit of research – digging into the ins and outs of a piece of technology in order to wrap my head around it.
I particularly like working with young businesses – it’s really rewarding to get to know them when they’re just starting out and watch them grow successfully. Quite a lot of support is normally needed at an early stage and we have creative ways of working with these businesses so that they can access the help they need - you can become quite heavily involved with them and this builds a strong relationship!
The skills I use most in my role is commerciality: it’s important to be able to quickly understand what your client is trying to achieve and find a way of making it work within the legal framework. This occasionally requires some creativity! Legal technologists also need a natural curiosity and interest in the sector, especially when trying to get your head around new tech and keep up with developments.
If you’re looking to pursue a career in legal tech, then be curious! While clients rightly expect you to have some technical knowledge and to have researched their business, I find it is always helpful to ask lots of questions about how a product or a piece of tech works. It’s obviously helpful to have a strong understanding of what your client does and is trying to achieve but questions can often bring up other issues which may not have been considered. The earlier these can be identified and addressed the better.”