The Tough Relationship between Law Students and Lawtech
During my law degree, I have been bombarded with vague articles urging me to embrace “lawtech” and “AI”. Surprisingly,“blockchain” popped up only once in a while. For students with limited connections to the legal profession, these articles may be their primary source of knowledge about legal practice. Since law students are under constant pressure to obtain the ‘mythical’ commercial awareness , they have no other choice but to read about greater efficiencies enabled by lawtech, new features and law firm firing paralegals while embracing lawtech. Richard Susskind, ahead of the Future of Legal Education and Training Conference 2019, made an even more far-reaching remark:
“If you are a young lawyer or you are running a law firm, you should ask yourself, should I compete with these AI/online systems or should I be one of those who is building these systems? Which will you do?”
These words gain seriousness when one learns that Swansea University recently launched its Master’s in Legal Tech aimed at… law graduates. No doubt, in the era of legal tech hype, many aspiring solicitors may think that such qualification would give them an edge in getting training contracts at City firms. Is this true? We are yet to hear the answer from their Graduate Recruitment teams.
Unfortunately, attending lawtech conferences and training sessions costs at least a hefty £200 for a day or two (excluding travel and accommodation costs). Notably, lawtech vendors are not likely to offer anything to students who happen to show an interest in their software and I cannot see what I, a mere LLB graduate, can offer them, unless I would be interested in becoming lawtech salesman myself. So while it would be great to attend one of these conferences, accessibility is clearly an issue. On the other hand, some information about products are available online, but they explain little to nothing about how these programs actually work. Having witnessed a demo of Nia Analysis’ software for analysing contracts for misfitting and contentious phrases at the London Tech Week, I must admit that online resources fail to explain the nature of legal tech. Perhaps that’s a bitter pill that majority of my peers have to swallow: lawtech companies don’t care about students, but they care about law firms that can be an actual source of revenue!
The problem is that aspiring solicitors do not have easy access to resources that will help them learn the technical basics that they are somehow expected to know, unless they want to be at a strong disadvantage. The greatest thing that I obtained through my interest in tech is a strong understanding of its limits. I can see why some law students would either overestimate the capabilities of (legal) tech or would wonder about the point of qualifying as a solicitor and working hard for their law degree in the first place if the majority of the current legal workload is getting automated at the terrifying pace (yes, a career in law will get more and more competitive).
Personally, I benefited a lot from learning the basic concepts about AI and blockchain. Over time, I started spending more time reading about the legal issues relating to the new technologies and I discovered my passion for digital law. This is why I attended London Tech Week (with a free pass!) in the first place and I actually got a bit of insight into the current state of the art.
However, I cannot see my journey as a way for every law student. The majority of my peers don’t want to practice law in such a specific niche – they are focused on ‘mainstream’ areas, e.g. criminal law, family law or human rights. I cannot see anything wrong with that. Arguably, they would do much better in the interviews by focusing on the areas of practice that they are passionate about rather than by showing off with tech-savvy terminology that they don’t necessarily understand in depth.
Going back to the knowledge about lawtech, at the level of a law firm, whether we are talking about City giant or a high street practice, the only thing that matters is understanding what’s really out there available on the market. No doubt, you’re only in a good position to enquire about lawtech products when you are already employed by a law firm, and probably not until you’re at the level of senior associate.
In conclusion, if lawtech vendors are keen to attract law students in any way, they should start by explaining basic terminology first and then presenting the actual capabilities of the software rather than bombarding us with buzzwords. I am sorry to say, but few people outside of the tech industry know the relationship between ‘blockchain’ and ‘Bitcoin’ and even fewer have heard anything about ‘smart contracts’ or ‘Ethereum’.
Let’s start with the basics. Be aware of your audience, at all times.
By Pawel Misztal