Are UK law students future-proof?
University opportunities on offer
Law students are highly regarded for studying an intellectually challenging and stimulating degree. Currently students are taught hard law with some soft law elements such as research, essay and dissertation writing. It is undeniable that mooting, court visits, pro bono and negotiation are wonderful opportunities which universities currently offer. Professional guest speakers and networking events enable students to connect with legal professionals they want to emulate in the future. However, I believe law students do not have access to information about what the future of the legal profession will be like
We are given conflicting evidence about the threat of technology to our future jobs. There are a number of scare-mongering individuals who say that technologies such as AI and machine learning will replace a range of legal jobs for future lawyers. They claim that technology will take over simpler tasks usually carried out by the junior end of the profession, leaving the remaining complex and higher-level work to experienced lawyers. They predict that the legal industry could potentially be hit by technology in the way it has hit the food and retail industries – online shopping and self-service at checkout in supermarkets have severely reduced the need for individuals working in stores. This camp of individuals also suggest that computing skills are essential for future lawyers (such as programming). In fact, some universities do offer the opportunity to complete a small qualification in Computer Science, which would undoubtedly bolster anyone’s credentials.
On the contrary, there are other individuals who argue that lawyers have no reason to panic and that they will have job security in the future. I have attended panels where professionals have stressed the importance of lawyers’ people skills. This is because they help build and maintain client relationships, alongside exhibiting reliability and trustworthiness. The ability to strike up a conversation about current affairs, sport or even television would undoubtedly help to build a friendly relationship between lawyers and their clients. It is extremely unlikely that in the near future technology will be advanced enough to replace these skills, especially since more traditional clients might dread communicating with legal chatbots and would prefer to meet in person.
What can law students do?
Regardless of what legal professionals may claim, technology will affect young, budding lawyers in some way or another. Therefore, it is imperative to prepare as much as possible, rather than shelter ourselves from the inevitable reality. In particular, research into the different types of technology law firms use is particularly impressive in interviews for training contracts. Moreover, showing a greater understanding of how this increases the efficiency with which lawyers work is extremely important. For instance, some UK law firms pride themselves in offering cloud-based technology to their clients. This is because they can access documents at any time of the day. They might also use programmes they have developed themselves or those they have paid legal start-ups to create. These technological programmes increase efficiency immensely, which is extremely important because in law firms ‘time is money’.
What can universities do?
Since soft skills such as networking and client care will always be in demand , universities should offer students opportunities to develop them. During a recent conversation with a solicitor from a regional firm, I was told that a lot of law students who applied to their firm were solely focused on achieving high academic grades and participating in strictly legal extra-curricular activities. She reported that some trainee solicitors at her firm did not possess simple skills such as telephone etiquette or the ability to deal with difficult clients. She reported that the root cause of their ineptitude was that they had not diversified their work experience. This suggests that giving students these practical experiences would help their employability immensely. It may also benefit the reputation and prestige of law schools offering such opportunities as accredited extra-curricular activities, which would, in turn, boost their employment statistics.
They should also consider contacting lawyers and tech start-ups who know the ins and outs of legal tech, since they are equipped with the greatest insight into the future of this area, so that students can anticipate their future work lives.
What can law firms and external organisations do?
Firms should offer law students insight days centred around the different ways in which lawyers currently use technology on a daily basis, such as recording billable hours or using cloud-based technology.
There is an incentive for law firms to implement such programmes, especially considering that the Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer Survey Report has predicted that by 2022 possibly two-thirds of organisations will be using more technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. It is arguable that the current generation are far more tech-savvy than their predecessors, but this does not account for the fact that practical, day-to-day insights into legal technology are unavailable and they are made to learn ‘on the job’. In some cases, firms are willing to provide extra training. But the question is, why wait till these individuals are employed?
Legal tech start-ups should give law students the opportunity to visit their offices and view the technological solutions they are currently developing. For instance, Luminance have contracts with some of the largest law firms on the planet. They have created solutions which use algorithms and statistics so that lawyers can work with contracts more efficiently, to either examine them or search for them easily. Ravel Law are also another startup to keep an eye on. Aside from providing standard research facilities, they have also created a product which analyses the firm and their opponents’ experience, through having access to information such as topics they have worked on, in which court, and which judges were involved.
Legal technology is an area which is certainly being explored and trialled to increase the efficiency with which law firms work. Needless to say, the future is uncertain for young lawyers. In order to be ‘future proof’ we must keep up to date with legal technology news and remain open to opportunities on offer, but also hone our interpersonal skills. Whether it be through work experience at law firms or other organisations, the ‘human touch’ will always be a key selling point of a successful lawyer.
By Rianna Grewal
Law undergraduate at the University of Birmingham