Rob Marrs

Rob Marrs, our Head of Education, explains how getting to grips with emerging technology can help law students stand out to employers.

Over the last few weeks, law fairs have taken place at many of the LLB-providing universities. You know the score – law students file in, get the freebies, and try to get the inside track on either a summer internship or a traineeship position.

We know what legal employers look for in their new recruits. We also know that there is an increasing focus on commercial awareness.  Such is the focus on commercial awareness that law students should be thinking about how they can develop their commercial awareness throughout their LLB and DPLP. That blog may be worth a look as an introduction to the concept. Commercial awareness isn’t a static concept though. As markets and practice develop, organisations will look for different things.

So what can you do? The ‘what is commercial awareness?’ post should help. Reading around the market, studying and thinking about market trends, and considering why businesses are making certain decisions should help too.

The legal profession needs technology skills

I’ve recently been researching the need the profession has for people with legal technology skills. This has involved meeting people across the profession: from lawyers serving the tech sector through senior in-house counsel who increasingly push lawyers for creative technological solutions as well as legal advice to those in the emerging profession of legal technologists.

Their message was clear. That – to a greater or lesser extent – most legal businesses will become technology businesses in the medium term. I’ve heard exactly the same from in-house lawyers in the financial services sector – that banks will end up being technology businesses that happen to work in banking. If major clients are moving in that direction, it follows that law students need to be aware of this so they can advise properly in the future.  That all means that commercial awareness increasingly does include a need to understand technology: How will technology affect law firms and in-house organisations in the coming years? How will lawyers utilise technology to serve clients? How will Scotland’s tech sector grow and what will those organisations need from their lawyers?

So what can law students do?

Understand the basics and understand them well. Law graduates should be able to use Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint to a sophisticated level. A mail merge isn’t rocket science and the correct response when someone asks for one shouldn’t be a confused look. Most people overstate their Excel abilities: it isn’t just a place for basic data collection. Can you use formulas, references, macros and pivot tables? Everybody claims they can do these things but few can really do so. It can be enormously frustrating for organisations to have to undertake remedial training on basic systems.

You should be able to use search engines (including advance search, Boolean operators, and how to discern between good and bad results). You should be able to use sites like Lexis Nexis and WestLaw. If, as a trainee, you are unsure about how much time you can spend on these, ask.  Once in practice you don’t want to spend hours and hours researching a point and accumulating a large spend unnecessarily.

‘At least as important as legal knowledge’

Don’t believe me? One lawyer – a senior figure at one of Scotland's largest criminal defence firms – told me that this knowledge combined with an understanding of technology was at least as important as legal knowledge.

Navigating Microsoft Office smoothly isn’t enough. If in the future you want to be lawyer advising the financial services sector you are going to need to begin to understand Blockchain, e-discovery and APIs. If you want to advise the tech sector, good client service will mean having an understanding of the issues that affect them.

An understanding of the tech sector – and how it works - wouldn’t go amiss. Developing an awareness of the tech issues that will affect the profession will be helpful too. Legal IT Insider is a good place to start reading around the subject. There are plenty of great contributors on the subject of law and IT on Twitter – hunt them out! Reading the books of Professor Richard Susskind would help as would joining the Scottish Society of Computers and Law.

Attending legal hackathons in your area would be useful. These are increasingly common and a good way to learn from industry insiders, network, and collaborate with students in another department (This is crucial. Knowing how to work well with different professions is fundamental in the real world).

Numerous lawyers who attend hackathons told me how maddening it was to see them filled with tech students and not law students.

Whilst there is a buzz about coding – barely a week goes by without someone claiming that coding needs to be taught in schools – it is not a must have on an application form. That said, the ability to code will be a plus point. As will other skills such as database management or project management (i.e. real, proper project management and not ‘’being really organised’’).

The trend of the increasing importance of tech for lawyers and law students is not going to go away. It is crucial that law students consider this development. The Society’s recently re-established Technology Committee is keen to see how we can ensure that the Scottish profession is at the forefront globally here. As a starting point, for student associates, we’ll soon be putting content from both Burness Paull’s and DLA Piper’s tech lawyers in the members’ section when you log in so keep an eye out for that.

Make sure you keep up to speed with the latest trends within the legal profession by signing up for free as one of our student associates.