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‘The SQE is a floor on which we can build things, not a ceiling to limit us’

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Ahead of Legal Cheek’s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference on 23 May, Adam Curphey, White & Case solicitor turned head of innovation technology at BPP University Law School, discusses the growing importance of lawtech as a theme in vocational training

Adam Curphey, the former White & Case solicitor who is leading BPP University Law School’s innovation team

We live in ‘interesting times’ in legal education and training: the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), the first significant change in a quarter of a century, has broadened into a crucial debate on what the training of the next generation of lawyers actually means.

One key facet of that debate is the role of technology in that training. As the tentacles of tech reach into more and more of what lawyers do, should students be trained in law-related IT? If so, what type of training? When? What should it look like?

Adam Curphey, head of innovation technology at BPP University Law School, argues that the SQE could be a golden opportunity to introduce an element of this sort of instruction into solicitors’ vocational training, not least because under the new regime there will be no prescription about what is taught in preparation for graduates entering legal practice:

“At the moment, the LPC is very regulated about what can be taught, how it is taught, and how it is examined so if we do want to incorporate tech we have to fit it in around the edges,” he says. For instance, BPP itself is, subject to validation, launching a new module, Legal Technology Innovation and Design, in September of this year, but Curphey says that at the moment “out of necessity, tech is additional, on the outside”.

From 2020 — when under current estimations the SQE will be introduced — this will change.

“The SRA has said that the regulator should only give the minimum regulatory requirements for solicitors so we see the SQE as a floor on which to build things, not a ceiling,” continues Curphey. “There will be far greater scope to embed technology into new graduate programmes.”

So if there is the capacity for teaching legal tech, the question then is what aspects of it should students learn about? Curphey argues we should take a holistic approach: “At BPP, we see this not as ‘tech and the law’ but tech as part of law, how tech is deployed in the law. And the way you study and what you study should reflect the way you will practise.”

Take drafting as an example. Curphey explains: “When you learn about drafting you shouldn’t just learn the skill of drafting, you should also learn how to use the software which is used in drafting. Our concern is to make training more focused on 21st century practice.”

This ‘part-of-law’ approach means that Curphey does not believe lawyers must be taught to code, a common concern among law students. He elaborates:

“Coding is a useful skill if someone has a particular interest in it, but is not essential for lawyers. Let’s take an example of another skill which a lawyer may have, such as DIY. A lawyer who is very good at DIY might deploy some of the skills that he or she has learnt from being very good at DIY in their job: attention to detail, ability to follow step-by-step instructions, and that is absolutely great. But if they were to come to the office and build a desk, that wouldn’t really be the best use of their time!”

But, he adds, there is a skills gap out there: “At the moment, law and tech don’t talk to each other very well so it would be good to develop the skills to facilitate a better understanding of what tech is trying to do, and what is should be doing is solving problems for clients and for practitioners. Lawyers do need more of a skillset in analysing their own processes, and a clearer mindset in talking tech.”

Curphey should know all about this as he was a practising solicitor at White & Case prior to joining BPP. Indeed, his observations of life in a law firm as a junior City lawyer are instructive in analysing how the established mindset needs to change: The Oxford University law graduate recalls: “Fear was the overriding emotion when I first joined the firm because when you come to law, there is a perception that things are done in a certain way and cannot be changed, which makes sense from a risk-perspective; but you are not necessarily encouraged to challenge that.” This is changing, of course, in firms, and Curphey agrees they are “becoming more open to ideas”.

Indeed, the shift is becoming ever more apparent as illustrated in the innovation and research & development roles that are increasingly being created at global law firms. Several will be giving their take on the training of lawyers at the Future of Legal Education and Training Conference this month. The creation of ‘innovation hubs’ by the likes of Reed Smith and Allen & Overy, and wider legal profession participation in projects like Barclays’ Notting Hill law tech lab, are also emblematic of a wider change of mindset. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, such developments remain at an embryonic stage, and it remains to be seen if they will fundamentally alter the practice of law.

In the meantime, the debate unleashed by legal and education training reform over how and to what extent lawyers’ training should involve tech will continue to rage. About time too.

Adam Curphey, Head of Innovation Technology, BPP Law School, will be speaking at Legal Cheek’s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference on 23 May at Kings Place, London.

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