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Legal technology has been around for a while.
It has transformed some legal operations and inspired professionals to keep searching for more innovative solutions. The legal industry is ripe with career opportunities for tech savvies who can use technology to aid lawyers with client work and with their internal procedures. Legal technologists are tech experts that seem to be in high demand nowadays.
But are law firms and corporate legal departments ready to fully integrate these professionals and allow them a complete ascent up the corporate ladder?
In this article, I will discuss the characteristics and responsibilities of a legal technologist and the adjustments designed to ensure that this role meets the requirements of different stakeholders such as law firms and legal departments. I will present the career hurdles a legal technologist might face when working in law firms or corporate legal departments. In the end, I will try and predict how this job will evolve in the foreseeable future.
1. An Emerging Role
In his seminal book on “Tomorrow’s lawyers,” Richard Susskind defines a legal technologist as someone who liaises law and technology by exhibiting enough knowledge on systems engineering and IT management while being trained and experienced in the practice of law. These people are the ones that, among others, design digital legal services.
Legal technologists are usually lawyers, former lawyers who got into using technology in their day to day jobs, or essentially any other professionals interested in legal tech.
But legal technologists are not just tech-minded professionals leveraging traditional technology or research to meet a firm’s day-to-day demands. In fact, those that are most in-demand have a grasp of how advanced technology can solve the firm’s business needs. These people understand how to deploy and use technology as an enabler to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and tackle the “more for less” dilemma. At their core, these professionals represent the catalyst for a change of paradigm when it comes to how legal services are delivered.
Legal technologists’ role goes beyond merely (yet, critically importantly) enhancing clients’ solutions; it helps improving law firm’s workflow and practice to tackle all kinds of challenges and attract top talent. They play a vital role in reshaping how law firms and legal departments operate in the overall macro context under the talent race pressure.
In defining the role of a legal technologist, stakeholders and analysts asked some basic questions:
a. Is being a lawyer necessary for working as a legal technologist?
No, it is not necessary, but it helps a lot. True, sometimes, being a lawyer can be a hindrance when figuring out solutions (tech and operational). Irrespectively, as a general rule, you have to understand how lawyers think and work.
b. Do you need to be a software developer and master a specific programming language to succeed as a legal technologist?
While a technology background can be useful, you don’t need to know how to code. In any case, you need to understand the basic concepts and capabilities of software development.
Necessarily, apart from a healthy dose of understanding legal operations and software development intricacies, a legal technologist must exhibit some additional traits: process mapping, and design thinking skills, as well as data modelling and analysis.
c. How can I ensure that my products as a legal technologist are appropriately moulded to fit the needs of the customers?
To this end, you must determine the client and the market you will serve:
- Big firms are usually in need of litigation support, application development, and systemising templates.
- When it comes to solo and medium firms, however, you’ll have enough freedom to start all over, whether you have to design a paperless office or start a legal innovation department from scratch.
In all cases, if you need guidance or simply some peers to debate with, you could enrol in different communities, such as the Association of Legal Technologists.
- Those who started as practicing lawyers but got hooked on technology and liked tech better than practicing law;
- Those outside the lawyers’ guilt who have a technology background but got interested in legal tech;
- People who work in litigation support departments of big law firms that may not have a tech background but have say, project management or design background and their expertise is valuable to the team.
Being a legal technologist generalist seems harder nowadays as the domain is expanding. Try and fit into a niche such as dispute resolution or e-discovery.
Conclusively, a legal technologist must have a working knowledge and basic understanding of legal tech solutions, including AI and machine learning, and the ability to complete various projects simultaneously. Equally, a keen ability to communicate meaningfully across different levels of a law firm or legal department goes a long way.
The key responsibilities of a legal technologist might also include:
- Helping to design a new data model for a particular practice group – consulting with all teams and locations within the group to map out processes, transaction types, activities, and tasks for all kinds of work;
- Minimising the amount of bespoke development required in the system, leaning towards higher configuration and systematisation;
- Designing and configuring the system to meet specific large/essential client requirements.
By and large, legal technologists will usually collaborate with other legal professionals to:
- Deliver and provide legal advice to clients in a novel, innovative, outcome-focused manner;
- Collaborate with clients and other service providers to present legal advice;
- Reduce time spent on repetitive, labour intensive, over-priced tasks;
- Reduce overheads and increase profitability;
- Improve knowledge and data management techniques by ensuring the safety of the data held within the organisation.
While in increasingly high demand, the responsibilities of legal technologists differ in law firms as opposed to corporate legal departments.
While the role is focused on evaluating the needs of law firms’ clients, in the case of corporate legal departments, it revolves around implementing and evaluating legal technology for the company itself. For this reason, migrating from a law firm to a legal department or vice versa is possible, but improbable.
Legal technologists are sought after not only by Big Law but also by midsized law firms. However, unlike the former, the middle-ranged law firms are focused mainly on streamlining workflows and disseminating tech awareness in the firm, observes Red Cave Consulting’s CEO Jared Correia. In any event, legal technologists and the effects they generate into the company can give an undeniable competitive edge. After all, the difference between firms that grow and those that fail lays in corporate efficiency.
Corporate legal departments are beginning to include legal technologists into their team, but at a slower rate and with different responsibilities than Big Law. More like midsize law firms, legal technologists in corporate legal departments are tasked with identifying, implementing, and evaluating the necessary technology to meet in-house lawyers’ requirements. Intuitively, in order to be a vital strategiser in the company, in-house legal technologists must have a working knowledge of the overall corporation and the legal department’s processes. That is why most legal departments prefer to hire from within the company.
The demand for legal technologists seems to surge, and, consequently, both law firms and legal departments have begun to build corresponding pay scales and career track systems for this flourishing role. But there is still a backlog of cultural vestiges within both settings that might discourage innovative, entrepreneurial-minded technologists. The legal technologist role might be stepping into the spotlight, but those career-centred people looking to climb up the corporate ladder might stumble across some hurdles.
Notwithstanding the increased need for legal technologists across the legal services spectrum, there’s a glass ceiling that limits landing on top positions in the respective organisations. To put it bluntly, to be a shareholder in a law firm or a general counsel in a corporate legal department, you need to be a lawyer.
“It’s a barrier for people who are very entrepreneurial or really like the startup game and the gamble of, ‘If this works, we’ll make a lot of money,” says Littler Mendelson’s chief data analytics officer, Aaron Crews. Still, he finds law firms’ setting worthwhile for technologists. “The law firms, the ones that are forward-thinking and trying to acquire this type of talent, are increasingly being creative in how they compensate and the titles they give.”
Nonetheless, the rigid ownership structure of law firms across the world may repel some. “I think the ownership construct could be a barrier, particularly when you are building new applications and platforms,” Dentons’ global chief innovation officer John Fernandez notes. “But I think generally the competition for data scientists and system engineers is an obstacle because it’s a new set of skills. We don’t have a track record of competing for those types of skills, and many partners in law firms aren’t sure how to price it yet.”
Fidelity Investment’s vice president and head of legal innovation and technology, Jamal Stockton notes that, as a rule, a legal technologist’s career path in legal departments is less defined and varies significantly from one organisation to another. While some legal technologists may be able to climb the corporate ladder all the way up to the chief technology officer role, others might stop at the position at the tech strategy team, reporting to the general counsel.
I expect these limitations to stay around for a while until a cultural shift takes place. There’s no telling how long it will take for such a shift to occur, but I fear the COVID-19-related crisis will not be strong enough to trigger such. One aspect remains valid, though: in order to deliver solutions and products meeting clients’ expectations, legal departments or law firms, as the case may be, must have a multidisciplinary team including lawyers and non-lawyers, such as tech and data experts.
4. Future Predictions
COVID-19 crisis introduced some instability within the legal market, but staffers working on client matters that require specialised professionals will keep their jobs – for now.
“E-discovery litigation project managers and forensics: I’m not seeing a lot of layoffs of those people yet because a lot of them are involved in litigation matters, and they kind of have to finish up the projects they’re working on,” notes David Netzer, founder, and president of recruitment consultancy Legal Tech Talent Network.
The real question is what will happen to those legal specialists once this crisis’s spillover effect impacts the workflow, procedures, and operations at the company or law firm level. I anticipate a reshuffling of roles and personnel and, possibly, some layoffs. But this will be a period of many opportunities for legal technologists who, if anything, will prove even more reliable. Many of them will find part-time jobs and increased flexibility to be the new way of working.
“In terms of increased hiring, I would predict there will be part-time gig type of work for people that, if the economy stays like this, are eventually laid off,” Mr. Netzer concludes. “If law firms were to take on a matter that requires an expert, I think these people will be hired for contract work.”
The trend in personnel management could continue for all summer and early autumn if law firms struggle with cash flow. This led some industry observers to note that this summer “will be the summer of contract work”.
The way I see it, the legal industry is slowly moving towards a proper inclusion of a plethora of roles to better tackle acute issues such as “the more for less” dilemma or the talent race pressure. But the process is far from complete. If anything, it has barely started. But it looks like a promising start, with legal professionals coming together with tech experts and seeking solutions to problems long considered unsolvable.
How do you see current responsibilities of legal technologists? What does future hold for this role? Get in touch and let’s discuss! 😊
 Richard Susskind, “Tomorrow’s lawyers”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p.111.
This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire.To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page.