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Academic Career Europe

The Academic – Richard Parnham

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If I was to describe my dream job, it would probably be what I’m doing right now. I’m a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where I study the impact of novel technology on the legal sector. I spend a lot of my time interviewing cool people doing cool lawtech stuff, and then contributing to reports which try to make sense of what’s happening.

The story of how I got here is essentially one of the industry contacts I’ve made over 25 years, multiple redundancies, interesting opportunities that have randomly dropped in my lap and – like countless people from the lawtech community – Professor Richard Susskind. There hasn’t really been plan behind my career, beyond my willingness to take a punt on projects that seem like fun.

Way back in the early 1990s, I studied law at the University of Essex. Having failed to secure a training contract, I decided to become a legal journalist instead. Upon graduation, I moved to London, took a short journalism course, and blagged some work experience on the Law Society’s Gazette. From there, I moved to Chambers & Partners, where I joined the – now defunct – Commercial Lawyer magazine as a junior reporter.

While working at Commercial Lawyer, a new book landed on my desk, which I was tasked with finding a reviewer for. You might just have heard of it: The Future of Law, Facing the Challenges of Information Technology, written by you-know-who. I read it, loved it, and immediately vowed to get involved in legaltech in some way.

A couple of years later, I got my chance. Shortly after being made redundant from Chambers, I was approached by a former colleague. The colleague was working on the launch of what was – at the time – an innovative legal recruitment website. I had no experience of website development, but could use a computer and talk to coders. That seemed to be enough to get me the job. I worked at this company for almost two years, slowly familiarising myself with concepts such as user requirements specifications and user acceptance testing. 

During my time at this company, I completed a master’s degree, where my dissertation topic explored online legal services – directly inspired by Professor Susskind’s work. I also studied for a part-time Open University diploma in computing for commerce and industry. I enjoyed combining work with part-time study, trying to blend my academic learnings with my day job.

Unfortunately, the website I worked for become an early casualty of the dot.com bust – its parent organisation staggered onto the London Stock Exchange, just as market sentiment was turning against internet companies. As a result, my share options became worthless, my division was shut down, and I was made redundant for a second time. There’s probably a lesson there for anyone hoping to make millions from a legal AI startup: the market can turn against your sector in a heartbeat, and your company might not last long if it does.

Helpfully, just as my dot.com job was disappearing, another former Chambers colleague asked me to join their new legal magazine, The European Lawyer, as a legal journalist. So I returned to legal publishing. Unfortunately, less than a month after joining my new employer, its parent company was bought out, stripped down, and I was made redundant for a third time. Whoops. But, by miraculous coincidence, at the same time that my redundancy consultation was taking place, my boss inherited enough money to stage a management buyout. As a result, I suddenly found myself working for The European Lawyer Ltd, a small, independent legal magazine company.

As “the guy who knows something about IT”, I also became The European Lawyer’s IT head, even though I knew practically nothing about servers and networks. I also became the journalist responsible for writing articles about legal IT, not least because they were advertising money-spinners. One of the first lawtech solutions I wrote about was newly-launch product called InterAction, which you may just have heard of. Yes, I really am that old!

A few years later, and after facing redundancy yet again, I was offered the chance to go freelance, supported by a retainer from LexisNexis. I’d met, and become friends with, the LexisNexis people while working on The European Lawyer – personal contacts had helped my career yet again. This freelancing offer was very handy, because I now wanted to study for a PhD, but couldn’t get funding for it. My chosen PhD topic wasn’t lawtech related, but it was legal practice strategy-related – I explored law firms’ approaches to geographical expansion.

My part-time, self-funded PhD took a ridiculously long time to complete: more than 11 years. During that time, I wrote marketing copy for handful of lawtech companies, including Rocket lawyer. More significantly, I was also commissioned to write annual conference reports for Netlaw Media, the company behind the British Legal Technology Forum and London Law Expo. You might just have met me during this time – running between presentation stages in a mad panic, and badgering exhibitors to tell me about their latest product launches. 

Another key freelance client was Jomati, the law firm strategy consultancy. I’d first met Tony Williams, Jomati’s owner, when I worked for The European Lawyer and he was the global managing partner of Andersen Legal. My job at Jomati involving helping to produce the company’s in-depth research reports. One of the reports I worked on focused on innovation in legal service delivery, another on law firms’ use of lawtech.

Ironically, it was Tony who first tipped me off about what is now my job at Oxford University – he sent me the job advert, and asked if any of my PhD peers wanted to apply for it. My answer was a apologetic “no” – I wanted the job for myself. How could I not? The job spec basically amounted to my career to date: the research team were looking for someone with a PhD, interview and writing skills and, ideally, specialist knowledge of the legal sector. Tick, tick, and tick!

What lessons have I learned throughout my career? Firstly, that personal contacts matter very much in this sector – possibly even more than relevant experience. For example, when I took the job on the legal recruitment website, I didn’t – objectively – have the skills required to perform the tasks in hand. But my former colleague knew me, trusted me, and was happy to let me grow into my role. 

My second main takeaway is that there is probably a perfect job out there for you, which allows you to draw on all of your career experiences and interests to date. In my case, I found my dream job after more than two decades, multiple redundancies and a few shifts in roles. And for that, I’m very grateful. Who needs a career plan, when you can essentially wing it, and everything seems to work out fine? That is basically my employment plan for the rest of my life.

And, of course, I also have to thank Professor Richard Susskind for inspiring most of my career choices to date.

Richard Parnham is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Details of the research project he’s working on can be found at www.law.ox.ac.uk/unlocking-potential-artificial-intelligence-english-law

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