‘Teaching Legal Tech? Forget the Tech’ – Adam Curphey, BPP Law School

Teaching Legal Tech? Forget the Tech

By Adam Curphey, Head of Innovation Technology at BPP University Law School

Lawtech (or legal tech, depending on your semantic preferences) is changing the way that legal services are being delivered. Not a day goes by without an article highlighting law firms partnering with lawtech start-ups, setting up incubators, or introducing new paths to the profession, all to better provide legal services. It is not just solicitors either, as the bar is being disrupted by online courts and case management systems in furtherance of better access to justice.

For law firms and chambers adapting to this new world, much hope is placed upon new entrants. Studies have shown that firms believe new entrants will disrupt the profession over the next 5-10 years, with the expectation of an influx of ‘digital natives’. What digital natives are supposed to comprise is a generation who have grown up surrounded by the digital who intuitively understand how new technologies work.

But there is a problem; most of the technology being used by students before they enter the legal profession is not anything like the business technology they will use once in the profession, and there is a skills gap in identifying opportunities for innovation and efficiency in the workplace.

As firms come to realise this, the discussions and debates around lawtech have increasingly focused on questions around the role that educators have in preparing new entrants for the new world, a question that has been complicated somewhat by the imminent introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination and the changes that will bring to the way future solicitors are educated.

Commentators are variously calling for new lawtech courses, for law students to be better acquainted with specific technologies such as Blockchain and AI, and for law students who can code. Before discussing why I believe this is a misguided approach, first permit me to consider another topic entirely: contract law.

You would think it odd if students who were learning about contract law spent an entire module looking in detail at the relationship between the law and sponsorship agreements. While some of the fundamentals of contract law could be picked up by looking at one type of agreement, it is too specialised a topic to teach the underlying skills needed to draft and negotiate contracts in general. In addition, once in practice it hardly seems sensible that new entrants would not have experienced any other types of contract and therefore have no idea how to deal with – for example – an employment contract.

Instead, I’m sure the profession would much prefer new entrants with the skills to adapt to the drafting and negotiating of any contract. That means giving students a toolkit of skills that assist when drafting and negotiating legal contracts, including legal writing, negotiation, drafting, etc.

In much the same way, teaching lawtech does not mean teaching Blockchain. Nor does it mean teaching lawyers how to code. What people really want when they ask for lawyers who can code is lawyers who have a certain way of thinking. Yes, an awareness of current and future lawtech is important – lawyers need to know what they might encounter in practice and what is available to use, but that does not mean creating a course that isolates lawtech from the wider business world around it. That means embedding lawtech into practice-focused education that mirrors how students will work in the real world, with additional horizon-scanning to ensure students stay up-to-date.

teaching lawtech does not mean teaching Blockchain. Nor does it mean teaching lawyers how to code

So what should be our focus when teaching lawtech? Well, it really depends. Lawtech is just one solution that helps deal with wider changes to the way law is practised. Clients are asking for more efficiency and transparency, new competition has arisen in the marketplace, and the way in which solicitors are regulated is changing. What we need to prepare students for is new ways of thinking and working. Lawnext instead of simply lawtech, if you like.

There are emerging career paths for practitioners as legal technologists or legal engineers, and for those paths teaching the intricate workings of technology will be vital. But just as importantly, all lawyers of the future will need to be equipped with the ‘lawnext’ skillset. Creativity, project management, design thinking, user-centred and/or participatory design, communication with those outside of law (including technology specialists), emotional intelligence, and a humanity that can fill in the gaps around the edges of technology.

Working effectively for clients does not involve picking a solution before you start. It would be a strange way to work to say to a client: ‘We have Blockchain, now what do you want us to do with it?’

In much the same way, legal education should not involve teaching only a specific technology. There is often a gap between legal education and drawing on specifics of that education in practice during which much will change in how lawtech is used and which law firms are using which technologies, and so there is a danger of early over-specialisation in such an approach. Our job as legal educators is to produce effective future practitioners, and that means preparing students for the multifaceted business world they are entering.

Instead of teaching lawtech then, we need to teach ‘lawnext’: an entire toolkit of skills for the modern practitioner of which technology plays a part.