Robots are not coming to take our jobs — but they are changing the way we do them

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Lawyers are no longer isolated providers of water-tight legal documents

Few things can change a conversation amongst law students like commercial awareness. I know, because I spent two weeks trying to circumvent the Financial Times paywall before my TC interview in the City in a bid to impress my interviewers with the likely implications of Nigerian GDP growth. In the event, they never asked, nor did I feel like they ever would.

It did get me thinking though. Why do so many technically capable and talented young lawyers suffer from the same crippling fear as I did — that they simply don’t know enough about the business world to be comfortable talking about it?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere between the rapidly changing nature of the legal industry (which in fairness requires a bit of awareness itself), and the failure of the legal education system as it stands, particularly at undergraduate level, to adapt.

The changes can be broadly categorised into two areas.

Firstly, the emergence of technology and its capabilities in document reviewal and drafting. It’s very easy to hear the term ‘artificial intelligence’ and assume that sentient robot beings are coming to take our jobs, but the truth is far closer to home: gone are the days of the superstar warrior-drafter-lawyer who could grind out a commercial lease in twenty minutes flat. In five years, there will be software for that. Being a technically gifted lawyer on its own means increasingly little.

The second change has much more to do with the way in which professional services work in general. The legal market is saturated, and with clients becoming increasingly conscious of the amount they spend on legal services (in light of more efficient, technological solutions) — lawyers can either choose to fall out of the picture all together or to change the service they offer. And, for those wondering, that means being commercially aware. It means understanding the client, understanding what they want, and understanding how they’re going to get there.

Lawyers are no longer isolated providers of water-tight legal documents because, you guessed it, there’ll be software for that. In order to maximise the value they can provide clients, they’ll need to offer more than a document — they’ll need to offer real, business-savvy advice.

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This is where I think the legal education fails its budding scholars and where students can do better to prepare themselves for both interviews and City law careers in general. There is a growing skill gap between how legal services are being delivered and what students are being taught to do and think.

I remember hearing that certain firms were more ‘innovative’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ than others, but not really grasping what it meant. In reality, it is those firms that are embracing those changes and doing their best to enable their young lawyers to shift away from the technical side to the client side at an earlier stage, thus providing more value-per-lawyer than ever before.

The knock-on effect of this has to travel all the way down to legal education. If firms want to hire the best candidates for the job, and that job is changing, we need to be doing more to help those students understand how. It is one thing to know how a merger happens – quite another to understand why. If we can teach aspiring lawyers the answers to these broader, ‘commercial’ questions, then we are preparing them far better for what’s to come.

I remember being distinctly frustrated at the lack of opportunity in my degree to study business, the economy or anything more interesting than Mrs Donoghue and the snail. It is no wonder that many students get to interview and feel a little bewildered by how law firms actually operate and the services they offer – they have never been taught.

Advocating for a more practical approach to legal undergraduate study doesn’t come without its controversies. The LPC is supposed to shoulder some of that burden. But the unhappy truth is that in an increasingly uncertain and competitive job market, students have to think about their careers far earlier than ever, and we would do well to be affording them the why, not just the how.

Robots are not coming to take our jobs — but they are changing the way we do them, and the students, universities and law firms that are up for the task of meeting that change head on will be those that prosper.

David Smith (pseudonym) is studying law at university in London and has training contract lined up at a silver circle law firm.

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