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Tech: an emerging area for law firm recruiters?

Digital skills are highly desired by law firms, which has translated into a ‘booming’ legal tech job market. However, a UK-wide tech skills deficit could make hiring into these roles challenging, as we report.

Specialised digital skills are becoming a necessity for organisations that want to remain competitive. Yet, many law firms are sorely lacking these capabilities.

Research from three skills organisations – the Learning and Work Institute, WorldSkills UK and Enginuity – found 27% of employers now require the majority of their people to have advanced digital skills such as coding and computer-aided design, but 37% say their workforce lacks these abilities.

This should ring alarm bells, particularly for law firms. These capabilities are in high demand, with 60% of organisations expecting their reliance on advanced digital skills to increase over the next five years. This means that law firms are going to be competing for this talent alongside employers with more established tech career routes.

Recruiting people from a technology background, or lawyers with an interest in technology, is becoming more important in the legal sector for two reasons, says Yasmina Kone, interim graduate recruitment manager at Clifford Chance.

“The first is that the world is only becoming more technology-focused, and it’s great to have trainees joining us who are already skilled in using technology to solve business problems and have an interest in the legal issues surrounding technology,” she says.

“Secondly, we know that the best teams are those which are most diverse because they arrive at the most creative solutions. Recruiting trainees from different degree backgrounds ensures that we have different perspectives reflected in our teams, and therefore provide the best client service.”

Why law?

But why should a computer science or programming graduate, whose natural career aspiration may be to join an app start-up or tech giant like Google, choose a career in the legal sector?

“You’ll have the opportunity to work on the cutting-edge deals that bring all sorts of new technologies to market,” Kone says. “Commercial law gives you an opportunity to put many of the skills that STEM students learn as part of their degrees into practice – challenging theories, looking at large amounts of data, proposing innovative solutions. It’s a great way to use your skills and interest in technology to make a difference.”

The number of tech jobs in the sector is growing as firms wake up to the benefits of having these skills.

Dr Anna Elmirzayeva, a senior lecturer who delivers and designs courses on artificial intelligence, blockchain, automation and technological innovation at the University of Law, says legal tech is a “booming” job market, and firms are increasing the number of roles on offer to tech-savvy graduates – especially if they have some legal training.

“The holy grail where law firm innovation departments are concerned is someone who has extensive expertise as a lawyer as well as technical competence, which is extremely rare,” she says.

“As a rule, firms are looking for individuals who could educate colleagues on the use of legal technology whilst understanding the day to day working of a firm. Building these bridges between legal and tech worlds is very important.”

Building legal tech solutions

Many large law firms are expanding their tech expertise by building their own tech solutions and deploying new technologies, especially machine learning, says Elmirzayeva.

“This is the area where experienced lawyers can apply themselves as machine learning algorithms are trained over time under the supervision of a domain expert,” she says, highlighting that these roles are not just for those with a computer science background.

She has witnessed new job titles emerging, including legal technologist, legal tech engineer and legal designer.

“I’ve found a lot of cross over between the positions of legal technologist and legal tech engineer – both positions could involve developing legal tech strategy of the firm, advising on day to day problem solving, both could be involved in developing solutions and creating technological tools.

“Another interesting position is legal designer, someone potentially with legal experience and understanding of tech who could help lawyers resolve issues.”

Roles evolving

However, Mark Dean, Clifford Chance’s head of legal technology advisory, UK and India, suggests there is not expected to be a significant uptick in new tech roles in law firms. Rather, the expectations of existing roles will change as the sector and client expectations evolve.

“It is conceivable that with the expected advancement of AI in the coming years, lawyers will diverge into those technical experts and those who supervise and train machine learning models,” explains Dean. “Looking forward, we expect the use and manipulation of data to become increasingly important.”

Clifford Chance is acting now to both improve the digital capabilities of its existing workforce and attract the next generation of tech-savvy legal professionals, amid a nationwide shortfall in tech skills.

As well as improving the baseline understanding of emerging technologies across the firm, it has established a “Data Science Lab”, staffed by team of data scientists and engineers.

It also begun offering its “IGNITE” training contract in 2018, which offers applicants with an aptitude for tech a route to qualify as a lawyer, and has a Legal Technology Advisory team, formed of former lawyers and staff with quasi-legal backgrounds, to advise how technology can be deployed to improve efficiency and client service.

Dean says: “There is no stereotypical Clifford Chance lawyer; we expect to recruit a diverse range of tech talent in reflection of our clients and society at large. We need lawyers who are familiar with everything from cryptocurrencies to data privacy, but we also need a range of skills in the innovation sphere.

“Of course it’s great and encouraging that more and more law students and lawyers are learning to code, but we also need to nurture and develop critical, process led, design thinking skills.”

Education

As demand for legal tech specialists grows, law firms need to be aware that they may have difficulty sourcing the talent they need.

According to the Learning and Work Institute, WorldSkills UK and Enguinity report, there has been a 40% decline in pupils taking ICT subjects at GCSE since 2015. As a result, less than half of employers think young people are leaving education with the skills needed to take on these roles.

“As business demand for advanced digital skills is growing, fewer young people are applying to study the subject which could, if allowed to go unchecked, lead to a significant shortfall in provision,” warns Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann, WorldSkills UK chief executive.

“We need to plug shortages by inspiring more young women as well as young men to understand that digital careers are for them, and we also need to ensure the skills they are developing are of the highest quality to meet employer and economic needs.”

By outwardly promoting the opportunities a career in legal tech can bring, law firms can do their bit to help plug this worsening UK-wide skills gap and to attract talent from more traditional tech employers.

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