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Why open-minded law students will re-shape the legal profession

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Accenture consultant turned LexisNexis director Nigel Rea has high hopes for the next generation of digital natives

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More often than not, the technology environment that you see in a law firm is like going back in time. Sometimes it would be easier for lawyers to manage their working lives using the tools and apps they have to manage their day to day outside of the office. On top of that there is an underinvestment in tools to help lawyers, such as document review, drafting and data analysis. No doubt there is room for improvement.

At the same time, there are some good reasons for law firms being behind the curve. They are, necessarily, tightly managed environments that handle a high proportion of confidential information such as client data. And this responsibility has quite understandably bred a conservatism which is useful in the sense that it protects clients and guards against potentially costly mistakes. Another factor is that lawyers are very time poor. How can you change the way you work when everyone is trying to deliver 1,500 billable hours a year? Certainly, there’s very little slack in the legal profession to introduce and adopt new technology, processes and ways of working.

But for the law firms that can somehow find time and space to step back and consider more efficient ways of working there are considerable opportunities. A useful comparison is global professional services organisations such as Accenture, where I spent a number of years before moving into the legal sector. They are similar to law firms in the sense that they are full of clever people solving complex problems. But on the whole they have a much more advanced approach to innovation and intrapreneurship.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this is, but one factor may be that they tend to be called upon by clients not only when there is a problem or an event, as is the case with a law firm, but when there is a broader conversation to be had about, say, the strategic challenges facing an organisation over the next year and a half. This seems to have fostered a different culture that is more open to innovation.

What the big professional services firms do very well is use technology to free people up so they can focus on adding value, while avoiding systemising processes that require creative problem solving. This is easier said than done. At its heart, it boils down to putting yourself in the associate’s shoes, thinking about the technology that will help them, day to day.

So even where tech can achieve amazing things, how much of that is part of the way that a law firm operates? It needs to fit naturally. Then you can make progress without it feeling like snakes and ladders. In my particular area, drafting, one partner described one of our tools that corrects and proofreads documents as allowing him and his team to “trade up to a better class of problem”. That’s what innovation should be all about.

For law students preparing to enter the legal profession, technology, in my view, presents far more opportunities than threats. OK, so some work that used to be done by trainees is being systemised to be completed by people without legal training or even to some extent assisted by “artificial intelligence” systems. But this will, to quote the aforementioned partner, allow lawyers to “trade up”. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s the mindset of tomorrow’s lawyers that will hold them in good stead.

Coming into law firms fresh, these digital natives have no set ideas about the way things should be done and will be more willing to challenge what is already there. Sure, getting your voice heard as a junior member of a firm can be difficult, but look around and there is always someone more senior who is agitating for change. Find those people, network with them and support the ideas they are driving.

If I were a trainee lawyer right now, I’d be hungry to receive as much tech-based training as possible, and also be curious about how tech applies to other industries. In this respect, client secondments would be particularly valuable, as would a wide variety of work experience at the student stage. I’d say that those in my peer group that have had continued success are those that have taken the time to think beyond their current industry, learnt new concepts and applied these to their current roles. To me, the legal profession seems ripe for these sort of people to make their mark.

Nigel Rea is director of precedents, drafting and forms at LexisNexis. He will be speaking on Thursday at FinTech, AI and online justice: what technology means for the next generation of lawyers.