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Forty STEM students headed to Reed Smith’s Innovation Hub to tackle a data problem

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This is what we learnt from observing them

They say that data is the oil of the 21st century. Certainly the signs are that lawyers are awakening to its value, guided by the likes of Facebook and Google. On Tuesday forty science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students with an interest in law were whizzed up to Reed Smith’s offices to find out more about how their data skills could make them as suited to the legal profession as the technology industry.

High up on the 33rd floor of the Broadgate Tower in London’s financial district is the global law firm’s Innovation Hub. You might think it would be packed with tech gadgets and gizmos, but actually it’s a room with four blank walls, one of which is glass, and a surprising lack of boardroom furnishings. That’s its magic — it serves as one big whiteboard, giving its users complete freedom to visualise their ideas beyond the remits of a flip chart. Those lucky enough to gain access to this creative space can draw all over it.

While the City glittered outside, it’s here that the students — all members of Legal Cheek’s STEM Future Lawyers network — took part in a data analysis workshop.

The purpose of the evening session was to dig beneath the tech and artificial intelligence (AI) hype, and get down to the nitty gritty of what practical work ‘digital’ lawyers actually do — and what real skills that STEM-trained aspiring lawyers can bring to the table.

Pens at the ready? Here’s the problem scenario they faced:

Meet Jane, a HR director at a large corporate company that builds digital information products. It has over 3,000 staff across many departments. While the company is growing in new areas like technology and data science (through rapid recruitment in a competitive area) there are a lot of legacy employees with 10-20 years’ service.

Jane knows the next few years will involve restructuring, and a need to re-adjust the workforce as well as bringing in new staff. She wants to get a view of the contractual obligations and conditions of employment over 25 years of changing contracts. This includes a lot of old contracts that have been updated ad hoc through letters of contractual amendment. She is keen not to get into this mess in the future. What do we do?

Students were given a legacy employment contract to digest, and asked to do three tasks: capture the key data points about the employees, design a visual data model, and present their findings to Jane the client. Huddled over contractual terms and an array of colouring markers, the teams set to work.

In the meantime, we caught up with Alex Smith (pictured below), Reed Smith’s Innovation Manager. He told us:

“It’s less about the law side and more about using data — how to extract information from a contract and present it to a client who isn’t a lawyer, in a way that they understand. The exercise should get the students thinking commercially, and focus on what would help Jane make decisions rather than present her with a legal analysis.”

An hour later the brainstorming had settled, and the innovation hub walls were covered with graphs, spider diagrams and coloured pie charts. The teams reconvened, and ideas began to flow. Here’s a snippet from one team’s pitch:

“We need to move Jane’s workforce from areas that are shrinking, to departments that are growing. Aside from questioning how the business is expanding and looking at the relevant sectors, there are terms in the legacy contract that will inform Jane’s objectives, especially if she has to make redundancies.”

They continued: “Key data points include work roles, length of service and clauses that relate to notice periods, redundancy, pension schemes and untaken holiday. All of these will affect the costs of restructuring the workforce. For example, it could be more cost effective to re-train and move employees to a different department rather than make them redundant”.

Engaging their science training, students looked for the trends, risks and stats that they could use to then generate commercial advice. This included advising Jane to invest in legal tech such as document automation and contract AI to monitor future contracts in a cheaper, faster, and more efficient way — music to any commercial client’s ears.

First, though, Jane was urged to consider which data points about her employees really matter to her upcoming projects and business growth: “You can’t just rely on AI” to design a process for updating contracts, Smith told the teams during the feedback at the close of the workshop, which outlined the kind of creative-scientific skills that tomorrow’s trainees will need to have in order to deliver legal services in a data-structured future.

Afterwards, we caught up with William Massey, an undergraduate Physics student at King’s College London, who shared his thoughts on the workshop:

“The Reed Smith STEM workshop was a great opportunity to not just be told but to see in a real world problem how the skills I have learnt in my Physics degree can be put to use in legal applications. This has furthered my interest in how data looks to be more and more of a driving force in legal industry in future years.”

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