A student response to the recent working paper published by the University of Oxford Law Faculty.
On the 13th May 2020, researchers from the University of Oxford published a working paper titled "Education for the Provision of Technologically Enhanced Legal Services".
The paper seeks to provide some answers on how to address the technological skills gap amongst those seeking to enter the legal services profession.
Summary of the working paper’s key points
Václav Janeček and Rebecca Williams, the authors of the working paper, begin by highlighting the low level of advanced LawTech adoption in law firms and in-house legal teams. Suggesting, in part, that this due to various skills and knowledge gaps amongst the staff working in these legal teams.
Based on the findings of a recent Oxford LawTech survey, 90% of English solicitors indicated a learning and development need in relation to the intersection between law and technology. As pressure continues from clients for firms to adopt more advanced legal technology, some firms risk losing business if they fail to address the LawTech adoption and education gap.
The working paper focuses on the LawTech education gap and attempts to provide some answers to the key questions currently under discussion across the professional legal education system.
Firstly, Janeček and Williams highlight the problems surrounding the question: “should lawyers learn to code”. They argue that many lawyers, through document highlighting and annotation are already “coding”. At this stage, they draw an important distinction between coding and programming. With the latter referring to the use of programming languages, whereas the former encompasses a wider range of activity – including the use of mark-up languages. They conclude that whilst it would beneficial for lawyers to be able to think in an analytical coding-orientated fashion, they do not need to have expertise in particular programming languages.
They continue by citing the common Susskind argument that the lawyers of the future will need non-traditional skills to succeed. The discussion in the paper highlights the challenges around multi-disciplinary education and the rise of the role of a “Legal Technologist”. This is a law firm support role separate to that of a lawyer (they would not provide legal advice but support the delivery of this advice).
The paper defines a “Legal Technologist” as an individual with five key competencies:
1) Mindset understanding – an awareness of computer science concepts;
2) Data-oriented thinking – the perception of legal documents as data;
3) Agile system and design thinking – the ability to see legal problems as being composed of smaller problems and design creativity;
4) Commercial awareness – an understanding of the commercial benefits to a technology solution; and
5) Digital ethics and the law of AI and digital technology – an awareness of the risks associated with use of AI and tech in a legal context
The paper concludes with some recommendation of the practical steps that education providers can take to address the skills gap.
· Having a strong digital strategy
· Involving learning and development teams in innovation training. Currently, Innovation departments within law firms tend to have sole responsibility for this training.
· Developing a formal Legal Technologist qualification
· Seminars, conferences, online courses and webinars
· Practical experience on a LawTech project with an interdisciplinary team
A student’s response
The Oxford working paper accurately highlights a lot of the concerns around the LawTech education gap. However, it, through no fault of the authors presents a view from outside the LawTech industry.
In my experience, the majority of discussions by more senior lawyers in relation to LawTech relate to pressure from clients. These lawyers, typically partners, tend to focus on use of Artificial Intelligence and in particular, Machine Learning (i.e. what clients want to hear about). These technologies have a large role to play in the conversion of unstructured documents into data that can be analysed for commercial insights. However – these same lawyers are then not directly involved in the creation of the systems to achieve this.
Not all lawyers should be expected to have the technical expertise to implement and develop LawTech – but there is a strong business case for legal education that encourages lawyers to identify potential cases for LawTech. Personally, I think there is a really strong case for including the fundamentals of computer science as a part of the SQE. An understanding of Boolean logic, decision trees and database queries could help empower junior lawyers to spot situations where technology could be deployed. This would remove the reliance on a legal technologist to identify suitable applications of LawTech.
I agree with the paper’s suggestion of practical experience. A lot of the lawyers that are enthusiastic about LawTech have had some sort of prior involvement in a project utilising LawTech.
The “Legal Technologist” point is an interesting one. Currently, the reality is that most of the students I’ve interacted with are only really interested in becoming trainee solicitors. I don’t think, possibly due to remuneration and career progression, there is a real appetite amongst the undergraduate population for an initial first step as a “Legal Technologist”. Furthermore, finding individuals with an interest in the world of computer science and law is pretty rare.
Finally, there is an obvious advantage to having trained solicitors convert over to the “Legal Technologist” route. An individual equipped with an understanding of how lawyers and clients operate would, in my view, be a much stronger “Legal Technologist” compared to an entry-level joiner.
Author: Chris Ireland
Disclaimer: I’m a law undergraduate student with experience working as a freelance web developer (I know how to program in several languages). I spent 10 months on a placement year at a leading city law firm, 6 months of which was spent in the firm’s Innovation department. I have accepted a training contract at another city firm.
These views are my own and do not represent the views of any employer, past or present.
Edited by: Bryher Rose