Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, discusses where and how technology fits within the legal sector.

Yesterday morning on the way to work I watched an interview with the CEO of Goldman Sachs, the technology company. The firm may still be in the investment banking business but the CEO noted that 25% of Goldman Sachs employees work in technology roles, that they employ more programmers than Facebook, and in case anyone missed what he was getting at he summed it up ‘I can’t see how everyone doesn’t know this by now. We are a technology company’.

I’ve heard similar claims time and again from members of the legal community: that they are involved the process of transforming organisations in to technology companies, that just happen to work in legal services.

Then recently BDO (Accountants and business advisers) released their ‘Law Firm Leaders’ survey which noted that over 90% of Scottish participants said that technology will be a major factor in their firm’s success in the next five years.

The direction of travel across professional services is clear. Technology is going to play an ever increasing role in the lives of most professionals.

When we discuss how people can become more technologically literate or technologically competent we generally focus on law students – how do we find space within the LLB syllabus to ensure significant coverage of technology? There’s no doubt this is important to the future of the profession, but I wonder if we are looking at the issue the wrong way around. Should we be looking at the board room as well as the student union?

Reading BDO’s report I immediately wanted clarification on what was meant by ‘technology’? It might refer to the basic technology that – bluntly – ‘keeps the lights on’’. It might mean upgraded technology that helps a firm operate, such as matter management or practice management software. Or it might mean technology that allows organisations to offer new services, in new ways orto new markets.

The first two do not differentiate one firm from another in the marketplace. The final one really does.

The big issue though is that questions of competitive advantage are not answered by technology itself, nor are they answered by technologically-enabled trainees or newly qualified solicitors. The questions raised are of strategic importance to businesses. Should a firm utilise artificial intelligence and if so, how and to what extent? How imaginative are leaders in the implementation of game-changing technology? What level of investment in research and development is appropriate? What new services should be offered to clients? What is the firm’s risk appetite? How does technology affect staffing? If programmers and engineers are important how are they remunerated? How does this change affect culture?

They are big questions. They are the sorts of questions that can really only be answered by those who are running organisations (in private practice) or controlling legal spend and pushing for innovation from providers (in-house).

It is (relatively!) easy to make law students more technologically capable. We change the outcomes for the LLB and Diploma to focus more heavily on tech. How though does the practising profession become more technologically capable? Should the Society follow some state bars in the USA and have mandatory technology CPD each year? Or do we leave it to those at the coal face to define what they need?

There’s a big technology scene in Scotland and the legal sector is part of that. The Society for Computers and Law has operated here for many years and there is a growing culture of legal hackathons. For those at the senior end of the profession who are looking to better understand technology and ready themselves to answer those tricky questions there are vast quantities of free information and peer-support around legal technology currently available. All that is needed to access it is the desire to get involved.

That isn’t to say that partners need to become expert coders or data scientists (although an understanding might not hurt). It is to say that if you employ data scientists or programmers you’ve got to understand what they are saying to you. It is to say you’ve got to understand where they fit within your business, how they’ll change your business, and how that changed business will serve clients.

 

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