The Legal Engineer – David Law
When I think about it, my journey into legal tech probably started in 2006 when I completed my LPC. This was the year when Tony Blair was still PM, Sven was still the England manager and, more significantly, Enron went the way of the pear.
Trying to secure a job (let alone a training contract) in a legal sector in the ever-tightening grip of a global recession was never going to be easy. Firms were increasingly turning to good quality support staff to maximise margin and productivity. Inevitably I followed this route and ended up working as a paralegal at a mid-sized firm in Yorkshire.
I realised fairly quickly that the economic conditions weren’t going to improve any time soon and I decided to transfer my skills to a corporate role to mix things up while things returned to ‘normal’.
Fast forward 3 years, things were picking up (I thought) and I returned to private practice to crack on with my legal career. What became clear however was that the recession had changed the sector and its clients forever. The wider economy was still in stagnation and there was simply no justification for law firms to return to the blank cheque billing they enjoyed pre-2007.
My time in paralegal limbo continued and I eventually racked up enough legal experience to qualify via the back door as a legal executive.
Throughout my career in practice I was consistently baffled by the tug of war that still exists in a lot of firms: there is an inherent inefficiency in the legal process and the way legal work is done and yet there is an ever-increasing pressure on law firms to give greater value for money. The answer is often to throw more people at the job and put them under more pressure for less reward (both financially and in terms of career progression). This seemed crazy and definitely not how I had envisaged the profession when I was studying 10 years earlier.
In 2015 I decided enough was enough and made the difficult decision to end my ‘traditional’ legal career. I began working with Catherine Bamford in the early days of BAM Legal and then with Alistair Maiden at SYKE where I remain today as a Senior Legal Engineer.
Through the last 4 years I have kept in mind my own experiences in practice and I think this is what drives me on in my new career. There will be someone using the solutions that we implement who, as a result, will be able to do so much more with their day and (hopefully) not be sat at a desk in the small hours drafting something that should take minutes not hours. I genuinely feel like I’m making a difference and that’s a massive thing when you are looking at job satisfaction. I think this connection is also key when wading through the hype that seems to be flooding legal tech – knowing and understanding how the day to day works is critical to delivering the possible.
On a personal level, the creative problem solving and entrepreneurial elements of my current role are great and are simply way beyond what is experienced in day to day practice. This is not just my experience either; junior colleagues that we are bringing through now are being exposed to some amazing opportunities at a level that most people on the traditional practice career route would not experience until way down the line.
A lot of discussion around legal tech is that we (i.e. lawyers) are going to be replaced with automated process (note not robots!). At best this is click-bait, at worst massively irresponsible. Having worked closely with Manchester University’s undergraduates I’m concerned that this rhetoric is stoking up genuine fear and confusion amongst the next generation of lawyers. My message to them however is that now is a fantastic time to be studying and eventually practising law; there is a huge new frontier of work for them to explore and make their own. If you are naturally inquisitive and process driven, then a career in legal tech can be hugely fulfilling.
If you are weighing up a move into legal tech then my advice would be to play. Get Alexa to make your morning coffee. Download a coding app and play with it. Book yourself into an evening class that teaches you how to make video games. Mess around with Excel until you can get it to play Tetris by itself. Only by doing things like this will you know if you enjoy the type of problem solving that is at the core of a lot of what we do.
My other piece of advice is aimed squarely at undergraduate law students and is to get as much working experience as possible – both in and out of law firms. Anyone who is looking to a career in modern law, and especially legal tech, must have an understanding of both the law firm environment but also of the real business of the clients who will be paying the bills. Only when you understand both sides of a problem can a solution be properly put in place.
My career path probably rings true with a lot of my peers from 2006/07 and I would strongly recommend that anyone else in the same position thinks about a career move into legal tech. Your knowledge and experience will be invaluable in shaping the future of law.