Many LLB students might never consider seeking out an internship at a legal tech firm, but it could be the invaluable experience you need to set you apart from your peers and gain insight into the future of law, explains Sam Moore, Innovation Manager at Burness Paull and an Accredited Legal Technologist.
Summer is traditionally a busy time for many law students, particularly those in their third year of the LLB. As any law student knows, summer vacation schemes are the most direct route into future traineeships and this goes not just for the larger commercial firms, but for public sector and in-house teams as well.
The competition can be fierce for the most coveted internships. So much so that essay competitions sometimes award them as prizes for the winners. This holds true as much today as it did when I was a student myself and, with some law firms recruiting significant numbers of their trainees from their summer intakes, it will remain true for the foreseeable future.
This laser-focused ‘eyes on the prize’ approach to summer placements can however come with a number of drawbacks for law students - one of which I feel was especially noticeable this year.
As law firms invariably switched their summer placements to shorter, online-only setups in light of Covid-19, there was an opportunity for law students that perhaps went unnoticed by most – legal tech companies.
There are hundreds of legal technology companies in the UK today (Legal Geek’s ‘Start-up Map’ alone lists over 250) and, whilst the majority are clustered around London, many of them were offering entirely online work placements this summer, making physical location irrelevant for applicants.
These companies are at the cutting edge of how the legal services industry is changing. Law students can potentially add great value to the legal tech ecosystem, whilst deriving priceless experience for themselves.
As a hiring manager in a large commercial law firm, I would give a lot of weight to a traineeship application that included a placement with a legal tech start-up – “This applicant,” I would think to myself, “gets how important technology is to the future of law and has done something specific about that.”
I decided to ask a few stakeholders for their views on the value of legal tech placements for LLB students.
First was Nathan Corr, an LLB student from Aberdeen University and founder of Aberdeen University’s Legal Technology Society. Nathan spent his summer this year on a mix of traditional law firm placements as well as placements with legal technology companies.
He said: "Interning at a legal tech company is an exciting way to learn about the possibilities of different ways of working as a lawyer. On your placement, you are constantly thinking about how one day you might be using X product as a trainee to save time and provide even more value to the firm and your clients.
"It teaches you to look at processes and think ‘could this be done better?’ - a question that will lead you to complete your work faster, more accurately and provide even more value to your firm and clients. You also get to meet some awesome people and work on some really interesting projects!"
Sam Smolkin, Founder and CEO of legal tech start-up Offices & Dragons, agreed:
"If the legal tech company is building products for the kind of organisation which you hope to eventually work in, then you’ll gain a new perspective that few of your peers have. Working at a start-up also means wearing many different hats and you're forced to learn new things on the fly, and get comfortable being uncomfortable. That kind of resilience and flexibility is also hugely valuable to a junior lawyer."
Speaking with the Law Society at Stirling University, their Vice-President Neil Brannigan told a similar story:
“Not enough is being done in universities to encourage students to seek alternative work experience. This lack of awareness is especially evident when medium-to-large firms demand knowledge of it within application forms and interviews. Universities need to lead the conversation on legal technology and ensure students are ready to adapt to the evolving needs of clients and legal employers.”
Finally, I spoke with Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Law Society of Scotland, to see how our regulatory body views the landscape.
Rob commented: "For years we have heard from recruiters they value some attributes highly in future trainees.
"First, demonstrable curiosity or inquisitiveness. Strong academics are a given, but aren’t enough – those seeking traineeships need to have a genuine interest in the law and the markets and clients they’ll be serving.
"Second, a level of commercial awareness – sometimes difficult to define as people’s definitions differ. Increasingly, technological awareness is commercial awareness, as firms realise that technology might be used to make legal services cheaper, quicker, more efficient and more client-focused.
"Third, non-legal work experience is actually highly valued in the marketplace. It seems to me that work experience at a legal tech firm helps future solicitors demonstrate curiosity, commercial awareness and gain important experience that recruiters want to see. A no brainer!"
From my own conversations with these stakeholders the verdict was unanimous – there is huge value in law students seeking out work placements with legal tech companies, as well as the more traditional legal employers.
This, of course, needs to be balanced with efforts to secure a traineeship (if that’s the goal), but for many students there can be room for both, if one is selective about their commitments and prepared to seek out the road less travelled. Speaking of which, the Law Society of Scotland has agreed to allow legal technology student placements to be posted on Law Scot Jobs from now on – this should help to connect interested students with those opportunities.
The best way to find these opportunities, however, may be social media. Virtually every legal tech start-up has an active social media presence, so the trick might be for students to learn about interesting companies via resources such as Legal IT Insider and Artificial Lawyer, follow those companies on social media and keep an eye out for vacancies. Interested students might also benefit from attending Legal Geek Online this year – for the first time ever, this mainstay of the legal tech events calendar is going entirely online and entirely free of charge.
Some work remains to be done in highlighting the value, and availability, of opportunities for law students with legal tech start-ups, but it’s my hope that between the Law Society of Scotland, the law schools of our universities and the start-ups themselves, we can start to get the word out.
My concluding message to any LLB students reading is this: time spent preparing for the future of law is never time wasted.