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The Young Legal Technologist


Thomson Reuters hosted its sixth annual Unconference September 14, 2018 at its Eagan, MN headquarters. I was fortunate to join Kalel Dennis, Customer Collaboration & Innovation Manager for TR, in speaking about “the young legal technologist” and what to expect of young attorneys in today’s legal market. Kalel earned his JD from Syracuse University in 2004, ten years before I entered my first year of law school at Northeastern. Yet despite just a ten year difference, our experiences with technology were radically different.

Kalel had what many of us would consider a classic law school experience. Research was done with books. Collaborative workspaces, other than the library table, were limited to email and Microsoft Office. Classmates competed against each other to secure essential texts in a finite supply of sources contained within the law library. Online resources were available for Kalel to use, but for only one week of his first year was he able to do so.


Fast forward to 2014, past the Recession and the digital revolution’s onset. I received login credentials to Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg, and CALI two weeks before first year orientation. Before textbook lists, reading assignments, or a student ID, the very first thing my law school gave me was access to online research tools and practice modules. Collaborative workspaces were the norm. Group first year assignments were assigned on Blackboard, completed via Google Docs, and submitted via the West Education Network (not to mention using Sharepoint for all things law review). Competition didn’t completely go away, but with online research tools supplanting finite library resources, classmates spent less (or no) time hiding books and more time talking about how to best draft the sections of whatever brief or memo had been assigned.


It’s no secret today’s associates, law clerks, and research fellows are learning how to practice law with new tools and new workflows in a digitally empowered environment. No lawyer graduates law school today without some training on an online research platform. As in other professions, platforms like Slack, Dropbox, and Microsoft Teams give attorneys shared access to information and enhanced collaboration capabilities. Mobile technology, while lagging in areas like legal research, nonetheless improve efficiency in areas like billing time and client communication.


But does that mean every fresh J.D. has the acumen to be labeled a technologist? It’s important to remember this generation of lawyers had tech wholly integrated into their legal training, but painting all young lawyers as tech savvy is way too broad.


Seeking anecdotes to illustrate this, I asked seven former classmates of mine to identify their most used technological solution. Two work in large New York law firms (one an AmLaw 200 firm) one works at a small Boston firm, one works at a boutique Florida firm, one is a federal clerk, and two are in-house. All seven named the same source.


Google.


While today’s law school experience is tech empowered, it’s a fallacy to expect all new lawyers to be technologists upon graduation. Historically, the practice of law has been outside the realm of STEM professions, thus a refuge for the less tech inclined. It’s a common refrain to hear students echo Chevy Chase; they went to law school, and it was their understanding there would be no tech involved.


Does this contradict the ABA duty of competence? Students who want to practice yet averse to mastering technology that makes practice more thorough and efficient? This holds true for many students. I don't mean reluctance to learn Java or HTML, there are students who could not tell you the difference between natural language and Boolean searches.


Law schools and legal technology vendors are among the actors taking steps to prep law students for tech-impacted practice. Large tech companies offer trainings for new hires at law firms or for students at law schools. But, this is usually limited to teaching legal research platforms. Solutions like document automation, case management, or know-how references like Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law leverage technology to improve efficiency in practice, yet law students can go all three years without exposure to any of these solutions. Does that matter in today’s hiring environment? Even with biglaw associate hiring trending upward since the height of the financial crisis, students need every edge they can put on a resume if they graduate without a job.


Law schools are starting to recognize the value of attorneys who are technologically “with it.” A search across law school websites and promotional pages show initiatives across legal education. Harvard Law offers a law, science and technology course of study in its law school, has a law and technology law review, and a cyberlaw clinic. University of Minnesota Law offers increasing doctrinal classes on technology, like its Law and Artificial Intelligence course. University of Memphis Law offers collaborative opportunities with the university’s FedEx Institute of Technology. Northeastern University has created a Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity and offers students clinic opportunities to work with tech startups, in addition to its experiential curriculum where 2nd and 3rd year students complete four 11-week full time internships.


Regardless of location or US News ranking, seemingly every law school is searching for ways to provide technology training to its students. But beyond online research training in skills classes, many of these offerings are not mandatory, nor are they often skills classes teaching coding or introducing workflow technologies. And, if there are any trends to glean from legal education and technology training, the schools offering the most technology training anecdotally correspond with higher US News rankings. This is not to shame smaller or lower ranked schools with fewer resources. Instead, it is a reminder of a gap between the law school haves and have-nots that spills over into legal hiring and the legal marketplace. But glaringly, more than the lack of exposure to technologies available, few law schools train attorneys for a legal industry where tech is ubiquitous, or even disruptive, to practice.


Think of grade school, when math teachers insisted memorizing times tables and showing your work because “you won’t have a calculator on you at all times.” There persists in law schools a tension between new solutions available and educational value of learning unassisted by technology. There is value to learning how to draft a contract from scratch by hand, just as there is value in learning long division, but schools are still seeking to rectify the imbalance toward time spent on practicing by hand with utilizing technology to handle rote aspects a partner will expect done in a tenth of the time.


This matters more than ever, as technology is the genesis behind so many new career tracks. Solo firms to AmLaw leaders are practicing technology law, putting lawyers into blockchain, AI, IoT, cybersecurity, and any other growth space. Firms themselves are building innovation teams, connecting attorney leadership with IT know-how through new C-suite positions leveraging law and tech know-how. Lawyers are being encouraged to code, firms are pairing attorneys with in-house developers, or allowing attorneys time to work in firm-housed incubators. If the doom and gloom message of the Recession could be disproved, it’s in the increasing need for T-shaped attorneys: lawyers who get technology, both to serve tech clients and to help their firms navigate tech waters.


Perceptive young attorneys are maximizing this new frontier, but even the rank and file junior associate has higher expectations, if maybe not expertise, of legal technology than previous generations of attorneys. The legal industry as a whole may still be figuring out how to best manage unbridled new resources in this new digital world. Rest assured, attorneys transforming into legal technologists will chart the course to get there.

© 2018 Peter Colin, Jr.