Technology and the Law - Where Does This Leave Junior Practitioners?

Eleanor Parsons - Writer

Look at any of the leading law firms’ recruitment literature and guidance over the past few years and you will see one emerging area mentioned more than all the rest - technology, and its uses in the legal services industry. Technology is the fastest changing entity in our society, and has overhauled entire business areas in the space of two decades. It is understandable therefore, that as Law firms within the service industry move to a more automated style of working, many individuals in the formative stages of their careers may feel insecure about what jobs will await them in future years.

The fabled roles of Trainee and newly-qualified (NQ) solicitors, Paralegals and Legal Secretaries can often stem from wide generalisations, and this piece in no way intends to suggest that the only work that these practitioners carry out is menial or purely administrative in nature. In fact, it is this work and attention to detail that makes real difference where it comes to commercial contracts, sufficient evidential thresholds being met in courts, and client satisfaction with the standard of work produced by their Law firms.

This is why it is naive to suggest that a junior practitioner will never come into contact with, or be responsible for any such tasks. They are more likely to complete this type of work, and the willingness to appreciate the importance of any task in an office situation is important to instil in future lawyers from the start - ultimately ensuring that they remain well-rounded and versatile members of any legal or business related team. However, it is these repetitive, formulaic tasks that are most vulnerable to the ‘takeover of technology’, and therefore these formative positions are at more risk of being replaced by emerging technologies.

Social Mobility

In the past, these basic level tasks have provided opportunities for many people, which should not be overlooked. Many senior practitioners have spoken of how their first experiences of the legal system came as summer jobs; where they repeatedly paginated, proofread, and collated bundles for more senior lawyers - who in later years repaid the favour by assisting them into the legal career they remain in today. Without the ‘lower rungs of the ladder’ if technology takes over; there may be a potential deficit in opportunities for people to gain early insight into the legal industry.

The other side of the coin is that one would hope highly educated graduates would not be  pigeonholed into only undertaking such tasks. A recruitment selling point for many Law firms is their commitment to ‘client exposure’ from early on in formal training. This can be better achieved outside of the photocopying room. No matter how advanced technology may get, it seems difficult to imagine a service industry without just that - the service and human contact of one individual/business to their client. In these circumstances, technology taking on the burden of more repetitive tasks may free up Trainee and NQ time especially, to focus instead on commercial awareness, networking and personal development, in an ever faster-paced competitive commercial climate.

Improvements for Firms, Improvements for Clients

Time saved by the use of new technologies could allow for more tailored client care, and in turn a higher chance of continuity and retention of client/firm relationships. This makes business sense in a service industry context. It could also be the way for firms to diversify and set themselves apart in the crowded legal marketplace going forward - as many are already doing so to great avail. Law firms have to identify gaps in client provision in order to stay relevant. By moving fresh talent away from office based tasks to a client facing position from the start could promote career-spanning long-term client relationships from the off, and increase a firm’s fee-earning capacity.

We also shouldn’t be afraid of embracing technological change, as it can certainly reduce costs for clients. Where in times gone by, huge disclosures of evidence have required high manpower and hours to manually read thousands of papers, these days appear to be no more. This is has been shown by Burges Salmon for example, with their use of ‘Luminance’ software to change the process of due diligence. Firms such as Eversheds Sutherland have branched out to include offerings such as ‘Client Conversations’ to support their 5000 strong workforce worldwide. Clients will always be attracted to firms which make innovative changes in order to stay relevant, and where they are offered good value for money as well as prestige client care. All of these can be achieved through embracing new technologies.

It isn’t just clients who can benefit either, as firms can increase their efficiency and productivity by allowing automated programmes to deal with areas that do not need the close supervision of highly trained individuals. This keeps down internal costs and allows firms themselves to stay competitive, as the business entities they also are. Retention of talent is more likely when that talent feels challenged and supported, and this can be achieved in part through the adoption of new technologies.

But should we be wary?

Much like it was naive to consider that there would be no impact from technology on junior practitioners, it would also be misguided to consider technological solutions to be a fool-proof way forward. The use of technology in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) at present is a key example of what could go wrong for practitioners if we force the legal industry to become too technologically dependent too quickly. Recently, Courts, Practitioners, Judges and others have been struggling to keep our CJS functioning due to the wide reaching IT network access issues, across all Courts in the country. This prevented access to ‘e-bundles’, the new preferred way of working across the Court network (due to the green nature of the move to ‘paperless working). Compounding this, 12.5% of users of the Criminal Justice secure email system have been struggling with prevented access throughout the early weeks of January 2019.

Whilst these are wider uses of technology than standalone business solution products used in-house by Law firms, they are timely reminders of the infalible nature of technology, which can often be overlooked. When operating in a legal setting that has real impacts on human lives, businesses and includes time-sensitive elements, there will always be a need for a friendly face (or voice at the end of the phone) to react pragmatically and with empathy to any situation, as it arises.

Taking us full circle, that would suggest that there will always be a need, in some way shape or form, for human involvement of highly trained junior practitioners. From Legal Secretaries right through to Partners, all should be able to efficiently support clients in person, as well as through business and technological solutions. A service industry works based on human contact, understanding and an appreciation of how human nature affects both business, and personal decisions. Until such a time where technology can compete with that, it's safe to assume there is a place for junior practitioners for a long time to come.



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