Guest post by Rachel Broquard, service excellence partner at Eversheds Sutherland
When the first seeds of the legal technologist role were planted in the early 2010s, they took some time to germinate. A decade later, after a seemingly slow start, there has been an explosion of investment, awareness and new job opportunities in legal technology.
But as this new strand of the legal profession sets its roots deeper in the industry, what exactly does it take to be a legal technologist?
Improving conditions for legal technology
The climate and sentiment is certainly different to when the first legal technologist roles came into being.
A decade ago, the legal industry was still getting used to the idea that many tasks carried out by lawyers could be automated. Some in the industry were still getting used the fact that automation could support people in roles, rather than make those roles obsolete.
Coupled with the very nature of the legal sector, this meant that adoption of technology and digitalisation of legal services had been a sluggish process.
Nonetheless, technology and digitalisation always had the potential to flourish within the legal sector.
Soon enough, some lawyers with an interest in technology began to shift from being ‘advocates’ to full-time implementers of legal technology, alongside their colleagues emanating from more traditional IT backgrounds.
This arose because the people implementing and guiding the adoption of technology were given time to dedicate to it, and understood what was needed.
Technology providers had identified the significant opportunity to penetrate the legal profession and the growing demand of clients, themselves undertaking significant digital transformation programmes, meant they placed similar expectations on their suppliers, including their law firms.
The ground was fertile for the rise of the legal technologist and the teams and structures that surround them were being put in place.
What skills are needed by the legal technologist?
Even though many of the first legal technologists and advocates of legal technology were lawyers, it is important to recognise that a law degree or deep understanding of the industry is not vital to becoming a legal technologist, if you are from a technology background. Neither is deep technology expertise and an ability to code required, if you come from a law background.
However, an appreciation of both areas and a combination of skills in legal and technology are in high demand and we are seeing a growth in education courses where the two go hand-in-hand as this area becomes more mature.
Having teams with a blend of both a technology and legal background is useful, but the ability to manage, understand and communicate strongly with people is the most important skillset of all.
Those from a technology background can be taught the business and structures of a law firm. For instance, I hold regular ‘Business with Broquard’ sessions to field questions from our legal tech graduates, and others who join us from outside the sector, to help them understand the profession of law.
Additionally, those from a legal background can be taught skills in technology and other associated fields, such as design thinking, business analysis, digital transformation and change management.
The real challenges that legal technologists face are overcoming bottlenecks in resourcing given the significant increase in demand for technology solutions from their colleagues and clients, as well as helping colleagues bridge the gap in their understanding of how to approach a digital transformation project.
The best legal technologists address these issues with a solid understanding of human-centred design and strong communication skills.
Understanding data to deliver development
Another skillset that legal technologists benefit from, particularly if they are undertaking any form of product ownership function in relation to a specific technology solution, is an understanding and ability to collate, analyse and react to data.
While data scientists are certainly becoming a fixture in today’s legal profession, the legal technologist should be able to use data-driven evaluation to pinpoint where and how technology is being used, which can inform decisions around the need for additional training on software within teams or to help them plan for roadmap development for the relevant product that they have responsibility for.
Planning with data-informed insights can be incredibly valuable to enable the legal technologist to provide evidence-based analysis as to where future investment should be targeted.
Diversity of thought
There is also another point to be clear about.
In order to build an effective team of legal technologists, diversity is a critical to the success of the team. Any change programme, not least digital transformation, requires different ways of thinking to innovate and ensure the requirements of a diverse audience of end-users are met.
All forms of diversity are required across the team (beyond the traditional gender issue) if we are to succeed in making technology within the legal profession as effective as possible.
It broadens thinking and means that the diverse range of people in a firm and amongst clients are better catered for. It also means that the design and development process is more likely to be subjected to critical questioning and therefore result in a more robust outcome.
The legal technologist is still a relatively new role within the legal profession. However, in my view, they are now an essential part of the industry, particularly as more clients demand to see how firms are using technology in their work and partners look to have the best digital solutions in their armoury to help them win more business.
This creates a brilliant opportunity for those with legal qualifications and a passion for technology to embark on this exciting career option in the profession that was not available to those joining more than a decade ago.
But those who wish to do so must look to hone skills beyond the black-letter law and technology to include communication, data and a human-centred approach, as the profession seeks to embrace a diverse population of talented individuals who will nurture the digital growth of the industry.