How to thrive as a digital lawyer
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when supply chains broke and businesses were unable to fulfil orders, many in-house lawyers were left scrambling to check force majeure clauses in their supply contracts.
These clauses, which protect businesses from unforeseeable circumstances stopping them fulfilling a contract, must be actioned within a limited time.
Yet a surprising number of companies held only paper copies of supply contracts or files stored in hard drives, often squirrelled away in the procurement manager’s office, making them hard to retrieve during lockdown.
“If you only had paper or analogue copies of your contract, you might not have been able to give your customers notice before you lost the right to make a claim,” says Natasha Blycha. She leads law firm Herbert Smith Freehills’ global digital law group from Perth, Australia.
Those are among the worst examples but the pandemic exposed the risk lawyers face if they are not familiar with technological developments in their profession, she says. Today’s lawyers need to understand new technologies, to use them daily and even innovate with them.
Creating contracts digitally, for instance, makes them easier to store and access. Document automation apps assist lawyers in drafting contracts and case briefs, while machine learning tools help litigators comb mountains of evidence faster and more accurately. Artificial intelligence can alert an M&A lawyer to a missing clause in a deal agreement, or find a relevant precedent for a barrister.
Video communication platforms have also become ubiquitous. “Strong screen-based presentation and meeting skills are now part of what clients look for in outside counsel,” says James Anderson, a partner in the London offices of law firm Skadden.
The digital lawyer is . . .
. . . collaborative and shares tech expertise
“You can’t house your digitally-savvy lawyers in a silo. They need to sit in every practice area, so that they bring their understanding of how to use technology to every facet of the firm’s work,” says Mrs Blycha.
As a pioneer of melding innovative tech with traditional lawyering, she leads a team of 50 or so lawyers who specialise in digitised legal services.
In the UK, Kerry Westland heads a similar group for Addleshaw Goddard in Manchester. Her team comprises qualified lawyers and technical staff — such as coders and developers — and paralegals.
Ms Westland says success as a digital lawyer is less about the tech and more about understanding processes — and what works best in any given situation.
“The answer isn’t always technology. The digital lawyer is somebody who knows the tools they have at their disposal,” she says. “They understand a legal or business problem and have innovative ideas [about] how to solve it.”
For Tom McGuffie, a derivatives specialist at Allen & Overy in London, digital skills complement the more traditional qualities that make a good lawyer: “You [still] need to be resilient, have patience, dedication and robust critical thinking,” he says.
. . . a self-starter who enjoys creative problem-solving
A legal career is vocational by nature, says Mr McGuffie: “When you choose a practice, you learn from experts in their field, who pass on their knowledge.” But learning digital techniques requires you to be “an inquisitive self-starter and think for yourself”, he says.
Old legal problems can be approached in new ways. In 2015, for example, he was helping banks prepare for a raft of derivatives regulation changes.
“Tens of thousands of derivative contracts needed to be amended. It seemed obvious to me that we needed to automate the process,” says Mr McGuffie, who taught himself how to code in order to do this.
For lawyers not up to speed with digital technology, Mr McGuffie suggests first thinking about a specific use case. “Break it down into its component tasks and ask some basic questions,” he says. Work out which tasks are repetitive or time-intensive, which require express legal knowledge and which are most important to the client.
Then find tools to help you complete these tasks, he says: “By keeping the use case at the front of your mind, the application of the tech becomes much clearer.”
. . . adapts to industry changes, and helps clients do the same
For Mr Anderson at Skadden, digital tools are simply the next in a long line of innovations that help lawyers do their job better.
“When I started practising, we didn’t even have computers on our desk and barely any of us knew how to type,” he says. “But tools evolve, and lawyers do with them.”
The mark of an innovative digital lawyer, he says, is how much they help clients navigate the growing use of smart technology and automation.
Lawyers must be digitally versed in order to assess the legal problems and risks business will face in the future, he says: “What if an automaker is remotely printing car parts offshore? What are the customs, tax and product safety issues?”
A tax lawyer by trade, Mr Anderson sees his work in two frontier fields — space regulation and cryptocurrencies — as examples of how digital lawyering affects each industry’s evolution.
Understanding how data is transmitted from a satellite to television sets helps him counsel clients on taxation of space enterprise. Similarly, insight into how blockchain works makes him better placed to advise a client on the custody risk of accepting bitcoin.
“By understanding the ramifications of technological advancements, digital lawyers can help build the legal architecture for how the market may progress,” he says.
Legal tech knowledge opens up new career prospects
Almost 10 years ago, Kerry Westland switched from university administration to become a paralegal at Addleshaw Goddard in the law firm’s north-west of England office, in Manchester. As a partner, she now manages a team of around 30 focused on improving the delivery of legal services.
“Using technology and legal tech should simply be one more cross-discipline skill that lawyers have,” says Ms Westland.
“The lawyers in our firm help those in the innovation and legal technology team understand the legal aspects of a project, and the developers and legal technologists provide the technical knowledge and application,” she says.
Ms Westland likens the technology in a firm’s toolkit to Lego blocks: “Every lawyer will use it differently. The trick is knowing what pieces fit together to build what you’re intending to build.”
One of her team is Thomas Hinton, who joined it in 2017 after two years as a paralegal. He spent half his training contract in traditional practice areas of litigation and commercial and half in the tech team.
“As a legal technology trainee, I probably got more opportunities earlier — going to pitches, meeting clients, or working at a more strategic level — simply because it was a new area where there weren’t many more senior [lawyers] who could do it,” says Mr Hinton.
Now, he says his work is “less legally granular than a typical associate role”, and he often deals with information or processes at scale rather than, for instance, negotiating a specific clause of a contract.