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Tech is about keeping up in a data rich world, not getting rid of lawyers

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Top law students should expect to be more in demand than ever, say Travers Smith experts

Left to right: Alex Fisher, Barney Stannard, Nicki Woodfall, Emily Clark and Dan Reavill

The sharp increase in the amount of data in the smartphone era means law firms need the latest legal tech tools just to stay on top of the vast amounts of information they are bombarded with on cases and deals, agreed a panel of Travers Smith lawyers at the latest Legal Cheek Live commercial awareness session.

As such, they expect demand for quality trainees and junior lawyers to remain high, and don’t believe that the traditional law firm model — with a relatively large number of junior fee earners at the bottom and comparatively few partners at the top — is likely to change fundamentally at elite mid-size City law firms.

Travers associate Barney Stannard noted “the explosion of the amount of data from the early 2000s, with the level of work that goes into a disclosure exercise having completely mushroomed” from that point onwards.

Travers Smith's Barney Stannard on the explosion of data in litigation

Travers Smith associate Barney Stannard talks about how machine learning is helping law firms deal with the explosion of data in big litigation cases

Posted by Legal Cheek on Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Meanwhile, commercial, IP & technology partner Dan Reavill explained that “we need the new technology tools just to keep up”.

The side effect of more data and greater automation? More responsibility for junior lawyers at an earlier stage of their career. “It’s reduced a lot of the tediousness of being a lawyer and given us the chance to focus on adding value,” said Alex Fisher, an associate in Travers’ employment team who joined Stannard and Reavill on the panel, alongside tax partner Emily Clark and dispute resolution edisclosure manager Nicki Woodfall.

Another area where Reavill anticipated change was in prime central London office space, as firms like his embrace agile working to an ever greater extent. Noting that some Big Four accountancy firms have begun operating with fewer desks to encourage more home working, he predicted that it was a matter of time before the legal profession experimented with similar initiatives.

Travers Smith's Dan Reavill on whether AI is disrupting the business model of large law firms

Travers Smith partner Dan Reavill discusses potential change to the traditional law firm business model and how AI tools enrich trainee work

Posted by Legal Cheek on Thursday, 22 March 2018

An illustration of the pace at which agile working possibilities have been moving was given by Fisher. He recalled eight years ago having to come into the office on a Saturday to complete a deal by fax. “That simply is unheard of now,” he chuckled.

New skills

So what sort of skills do future lawyers need in this environment?

“There’s a common thread that we look for: students who are ambitious, plugged in and who can be relied upon. They need to be front of house from Day One,” said Reavill.

Beyond that, Travers tries to recruit as broadly as possible, and usually hires roughly a 50/50 mix of law graduates and non-law graduates. Clark herself came through the latter route as a history graduate career changer who worked for four years in the charity sector before converting to law and joining Travers as a trainee.

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“Law firms look for a mix of talent. Not going directly into law was never held against me — indeed, in some ways it was an advantage as I had learned a lot of skills in my previous role already,” she said. Other career changers at the firm have backgrounds in, among other things, the military, marketing and business, while one was even previously a monk.

Travers Smith's Emily Clark on the skills latecomers to law can offer firms

Travers Smith partner Emily Clark explains why a late transition to law shouldn’t hold students back and the multitude of skills they can offer firms

Posted by Legal Cheek on Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Lately, amid the legal tech revolution taking place, law firms have been looking increasingly to STEM graduates. Skills from such backgrounds are welcome, the panel agreed, not least because science graduates speak the language of fintech clients, but ultimately lawyers will always be valued for their legal and associated commercial expertise. “Personally as a technology lawyer I find it interesting if someone has got a computer science degree because it relates to the work I do,” said Reavill, “but I don’t think I’d ever recruit somebody with a computer science background so that they would understand the AI technology — I think we’d always be paying the real experts to do that, and we will want the lawyers to be the lawyers.”

Lawyers as lawyers

An example of how law — and lawyers — sit at the juncture between the different forces shaping the world is in the flurry of gig economy cases sweeping through the courts. Fisher sees this as an area where policy and regulation will trump technological disruption. He expects the courts to ultimately come down on the side of workers as a push is made to give as many people employment rights as possible.

“All of the cases are saying that these individuals are workers. I can’t see that changing. Although they have been appealed, my prediction is that the court will side with the argument that they are workers, who the ongoing government-led Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices wants to give basic rights to,” he said.

Travers Smith’s Alex Fisher shares his predictions on the future of work in the emergent gig economy

Travers Smith senior associate Alex Fisher discusses the recent Taylor Review and the associated legal challenges facing the booming gig economy

Posted by Legal Cheek on Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Another factor slowing down tech-led change is risk and regulatory compliance. Expect this to loom large over blockchain, said e-disclosure expert Woodfall, as the legal profession begins to experiment with its most obvious legal manifestation, smart contracts. “To automate is to supposedly make things quicker, but when it comes to blockchain there are also questions as to what that kicks off,” she added.

Travers Smith's Nicki Woodfall on whether blockchain technology can revolutionise the legal sector

Travers Smith e-disclosure manager Nicki Woodfall discusses the potential ramifications of heightened blockchain use in the legal sphere

Posted by Legal Cheek on Monday, 26 March 2018

This is not to say that the panel didn’t expect smart contracts to break through eventually. Reavill told the audience of 100 students that he foresaw them gradually being integrated into the long history of English contract law during their careers, building on documents like standard form contracts which lawyers are responsible for drafting in their original form but are then not needed in their subsequent formulation.

Ultimately, in a service industry like the law, the shape of change will be moulded by clients. So what comes next in the more immediate term? Woodfall predicted demand for consolidation of lawtech products into merged platforms that are more convenient to use and for clients to monitor. With his sights a bit further down the track, Stannard wondered if a company would be able to master natural language processing.

However, the big driver for disruption in 2018 may well come from outside the world of technology. Look instead, said Clark, to a traditional global economic fundamental: US government policy, where President Trump’s tax cuts represent “an enormous, once in a generation change”. Watch this space to see how the world’s companies respond — and what that means for their legal advisers.

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