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SmarTech 2016: How fintech and AI are creating opportunities for junior lawyers

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Top solicitors share insights with BPP students

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The booming financial technology sector and developments in artificial intelligence (AI) will create new opportunities for the next generation of corporate lawyers — but students must develop the necessary skills to keep pace with the changes.

This was the broad conclusion of a conference held at the weekend at which a host of top solicitors and other experts specialising in fintech and lawtech shared their experiences and predictions with 100 students at BPP Law School in Holborn, central London.

Of particular interest at SmarTech 2016 — put on by BPP’s SmarTech Society, whose lead sponsor is Norton Rose Fulbright — were the contributions made by two of the City lawyer speakers. Norton Rose Fulbright of counsel Victoria Birch and Slaughter and May associate James Mead have both found themselves at the heart of their firms’ surging fintech practices after gaining a foothold in the tech scene over the last few years.

Mead defines this emerging area as a group of finance start-ups providing “tech solutions to financial problems” and used his platform at the conference to explain how he and his colleagues are working to apply existing law to this fast-moving area. He explained:

It’s a mix of financial services law, regulatory law and IP — and through understanding the clients’ businesses we are figuring out how this existing legal framework applies to some very new questions. In this we are being supported by the government and regulators who are keen to promote London as a global fintech centre.

Mead added that this was an area where regulation is contributing to growing — rather than holding back — businesses, as an evolving legal framework boosts confidence in fintech start-ups enabling them to gain mainstream recognition.

Meanwhile, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Birch, who has seen her firm’s fintech practice explode over the last couple of years, emphasised the general shortage in people who understand both corporate finance and technology and explained how this will become increasingly important in the future.

Birch called on junior lawyers to become more technologically savvy to ensure that they could “add value and speak the same language as clients” and suggested that, in the future, there may even be a need to include this as part of the education of junior lawyers.

Birch’s words were echoed by Ben Gardner, data architect at Linklaters, who called for more “cross-mixing between law and computer science at the academic stage”.

Gardner’s thesis is that as commoditisation of basic legal services accelerates through developments in AI and other technologies, the demand for lawyers will remain elastic and snap forward as an up-skilled new generation of legal professionals blend tech-savviness with expertise in the law.

Not everyone at the conference agreed with this. Other speakers, such as barrister Tim Parker — who is involved in a project to develop a computational paralegal — questioned Gardner’s view about the elasticity of demand for legal services, although he conceded that the high end of law was unlikely to ever be commoditised.

And Shefali Roy, head of compliance at mobile payments company Stripe, warned of tensions between the banking sector — key clients, of course, for big law firms — and start-ups like hers. But there was consensus in the view that the march of fintech and lawtech were pretty much unstoppable — and that the big winners in this new era would be those who adapted to accommodate the changes.

The conference was organised by BPP University Law School students Maja Mazur and John Tertan, who between them founded the SmarTech society, and Dan Gilmore, Beatrice Cavicchioli and Thomas Crankshaw. Gilmore described the key take-away from the day as being able “to focus on improving all-round awareness” on what is expected of students seeking to specialise in this area. He continued:

Firms don’t expect you to have a deep, theoretical understanding of fintech, AI or blockchain technology but learning about how these kinds of subject areas have the potential to significantly alter legal practice and even more importantly — are already impacting on the commercial interests of potential clients, is worthwhile. That said if you do happen to have a firm grasp of coding and corporate finance as well as an astute legal mind then expect a bidding war for your services — as there’s a definite shortage of lawyers with these skills currently out there.

Lead image via Instagram.