Preparing students for the legal tech revolution


Is legal education preparing students adequately for a fast-changing profession? We asked ULaw...

We interviewed Dr. Anna Elmirzayeva, who runs the MSc Legal Technology course at the University of Law.

Joel Poultney, October 2020.

If there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that nothing stays the same – one must only look to the seismic changes seen this year as evidence. Yet, away from the pandemic, the march of technology has trundled on, bringing with it new legal systems shaping and redefining processes as old as the profession itself. And crucial to practising law in the future will be practitioners’ ability to get a handle on these new technologies and harness their capabilities as a means to streamline and modernise a profession traditionally hesitant to change. We recently caught up with Dr Anna Elmirzayeva to talk all things technology, the way practice is changing, and what the future might look like for any would-be trainee. Dr Anna Elmirzayeva runs the MSc Legal Technology course at the University of Law. 

Chambers Student: In what ways is practising law different now from generations previous?

Dr Anna Elmirzayeva: Automation is changing the industries dramatically, and to be frank, the legal profession has been somewhat late to this party. We see automation in lots of different industries. These industries are clients to law firms. Therefore, having used AI-augmented systems themselves, offering quicker and cheaper processes of delivery, they are pushing the legal profession and expecting the same efficient delivery from law.

“…analytical skills, strategy, ability to problem-solve are coming to the forefront and of course ability to interact with technology is becoming critical.”

Law, which has traditionally been a knowledge and reputation-based industry, is experiencing high levels of automation mainly because of the functionalities offered by legal technology. For instance, an automated system can take large volumes of data and analyse it in a matter of days or hours, which using traditional methods takes weeks and teams of lawyers to do. One of the essential skills of the legal profession is experience, memorising case details, and experience based on how many cases or matters you’ve personally contributed to. Today knowledge recall systems are being automated by tools easily accessible on the market. Given the level of automation we are experiencing, efficiency dictates that repetitive routine tasks are going to go; analytical skills, strategy, ability to problem-solve are coming to the forefront and of course ability to interact with technology is becoming critical. Therefore, there are definitely changes to legal services and how students will deliver these services.

CS: How is the law school curriculum changing in response to this?

AE: ULaw were probably one of the first law schools on the market in introducing legal technology training programmes. Universities across the country are drawing on computer science resources, with their technology labs joining forces. ULaw is in a perfect position. We have the advantage of maintaining a strong link with some of the strongest computer science departments on the one hand and equally strong connections with the largest law firms on the market, giving us feedback on exactly what types of skills are required of the new generation of legal practitioners.

Building a perfect legal technology course is about a creating the right balance. Courses that are too technical are not well received by lawyers and are frankly unnecessary, unless you are planning to architect these tools in the future. There’s a fear of having to learn a whole new trade, as well as legal trade. In ULaw courses we focus on conceptual understandings and give students the essential skills for how they’re going to engage with these tools, with hands-on, practical experiences.

CS: Do students need more than a traditional legal skill base to navigate the new terrain?

AE: I would probably say yes. It’s not a daunting task understanding some of these questions. Just a new set of skills that can come from training. I’m always asked, “do we need to learn how to code etc.?” and my response would always be that while it’s not essential – unless you’re a coding enthusiast, for which of course it would be beneficial – it’s about how you’re going to engage with these new systems.

CS: Succinctly, then, are students across the board underprepared for 21st century legal practice?

AE: Yes, if they choose to ignore the new technical aspects of legal services delivery. There’s some level of awareness of automation coming to the legal industry, but there needs to be more awareness of what types of tools are coming into practice and their capabilities. Understanding the functionalities of the new legal technology is essential for a contemporary lawyer. I always start my sessions with a strategy question: what types of skills are likely to be susceptible to automation and what will require innately human traits? Once you can answer that, you can start mapping the tasks to technologies that are offered on the market.

CS: So will the role of a trainee fundamentally change in light of new technological advancements?

AE: There’s a professional development need. I’m talking to lots of law firms and delivering sessions around the UK and it seems that the majority of them want their trainees to be aware of technology; firms are now seeing legal tech training as a must. There’s lots of expectation when it comes to trainees joining practice; firms will welcome those with pre-existing knowledge but will do their best to get others up to speed.

“The most advanced legal tech tools are being invested in by the biggest and wealthiest firms.”

CS: Do most firms seem to be on board then? Or do some remain resistant?

AE: There’s a general acceptance by firms of the idea that technology is here to stay. I wouldn’t say that firms are digging their heels in. They all accept that this is where the market is going and if they don’t get involved now, they will lose a competitive edge.

The most advanced legal tech tools are being invested in by the biggest and wealthiest firms. Smaller firms may not necessarily be on board or investing in the most sophisticated tech, instead looking at more straightforward types of automation. It’s also industry-dependent for certain legal tech tools: some industries are more sophisticated compared to other areas of practice.

CS: You mention the difference between smaller and larger firms. Do you feel the advent of these technologies may exacerbate the gap between those at the top and the smaller, mid-market competition?

AE: I see the market as quite dynamic. It might widen the gap to a certain extent, but I see small, agile firms emerging as well. These smaller firms have secured a budget to buy legal tech, so they can create competition for the larger players as they may not need the number of lawyers, the same pool of expertise, that give advantage to larger firms. Tech could substitute the human capital in that light. On the one hand, smaller firms may lose out, but on the other the smaller, agile players will have an advantage too.

CS: More generally then, what technologies are we talking about that are shifting legal practice operations?

AE: Document automation is well known by now. AI machine learning would probably be the first to mention, mainly because of its ability to digest large volumes of data so quickly. Another technology that attracts interest is blockchain and particularly smart contract applications. With blockchain overall, law firms are seeing lots of clients that are adopting blockchain technology as part of their business models. These clients will need advice on emerging legal frameworks and the legal implications of using these systems. Therefore, technology does not only enter the legal profession in the form of facilitating of internal processes; the client perspective is also very important, and understanding the functionalities of tech to be able to advise these clients is becoming critical.

CS: Drawing back to a trainees’ role, will those traditionally more basic tasks no longer be the domain of early practitioners?

AE: A lot of traditional training with still happen. Trainees will still be doing lots of traditional tasks, like document review, but we’ll see a steady trickle of technology into their lives. Traditional roles will not be replaced instantaneously; rather, new trainees will have the benefit of being trained and growing with tech advances. A lot of technology is still maturing and in some cases we’re not dealing with the final products yet.

CS: What solutions are law firms and law schools looking at to perform better in an increasingly digitised age?

AE: When we started building our courses, the tools that we encountered focused on discrete tasks: engaging with systems looking at contract automation, document review, machine learning looking at data sets... they were all very separate from one another. What we can see now is providers joining forces with one another and offering end-to-end solutions. Platforms that focus on client matter management: from onboarding, through negotiations, signing, billing, to final stages of the matter, etc., and all happening on one single platform. The tools are maturing and we’re starting to see higher-level automation with end-to end functions. Depending on budgets, firms can choose the piecemeal approach or go with platforms that join tools in more streamlined ways.

“The dreaded hours of juniors reviewing numerous contracts are going to go and allow them to focus on the exciting parts of the work.”

CS: Specifically in the intersection of technology and law, what excites you about the future?

AE: I would probably not be original in saying this but I’m the type of person who likes efficiency. The types of automation we are experiencing today are taking away the hard grind and pain points of the legal profession. Some legal professionals see automation as a threat, being cannibalised by robots etc. But overall, I’m very much pro-automation. The dreaded hours of juniors reviewing numerous contracts are going to go and allow them to focus on the exciting parts of the work. There’s no need to fear automation: it promises a more exciting legal profession in the future, where you can apply yourself and engage with clients differently.

CS: You mention fear or aversion, could you expand on that?

AE: I can understand those who see automation as a threat, especially if you’ve practised for a number of years and used to certain ways, where your reputation is based on the number of matters you’ve personally looked into. You may feel cheated if these years of experience are simply programmed into a clever system for someone else to use. To an extent, it could feel it invalidates what you’ve done throughout your career, so I can understand where this disappointment might come from.

Aversion may also come from the need to learn an extra skill. We all know the amount of work lawyers are engaging in, so I can understand why extra training might feel burdensome. But it’s not an overnight update to the system; although there is training done on all levels, firms are heavily invested in the grassroots approach, with trainee development that includes an understanding of legal technology. It’s a very gradual process that will produce a new generation of legal professionals native to these tools.

CS: Drawing back to your mentioning of different uptake in different industries, could you explain what practice areas might be more affected than others?

AE: Contract law is undergoing a lot of change through automation, with tools like Thompson Reuters Practical Law and Contract Express doing an excellent job automating and standardising contractual provisions. Contract review tools are enhanced through machine learning AI; consider tools by Luminance and Ayfie.

There’s a lot of update in the real estate and insurance sectors, with clients coming to law firms using blockchain and smart contract technologies. This even resulted in coining a new term – ‘ledger lawyer’. Blockchain is a disrupted ledger technology; the term ‘ledger lawyer’ refers to lawyers dealing with clients with blockchain as part of their business model. So they’ll need to speak the same language as their clients.

“There’s little legalisation governing how disruptive technologies are used.”

There are two streams of tech awareness materialising. First, legal technology used in the process of legal service delivery, with systems used internally to analyse data, build contracts or interact with clients. And the other is to work with tech-savvy clients who use these tools as part of their business model.

CS: Can you explain technoethics and the use of disruptive technologies in corporate governance?

AE: There’s little legalisation governing how disruptive technologies are used. One reason is that any regulation or framework might stifle the development of very rapidly changing tech needing to mature. The speed of these tools’ development, and appreciation that they need space to mature, means that there are hardly any legal provisions regulating AI-augmented tools, for instance. Most countries are approaching AI through ethical frameworks, rather than legal ones.

There’s definitely a concern as to how these tools perform, explainability of their decisions, and biases they might pick up on. As an individual, if you’re subject to automated decision-making, what are the ethical limits to how much data the system should use?  Therefore, the ethical implications of these developments are important. While lots of questions are future-based, we need to start thinking about these implications now. Technoethics are important when considering the legislative framework around AI.

One can also consider how interactions built using new technologies might affect traditional corporate governance structures. This could be a topic for a whole new discussion and a very interesting one in the post-pandemic environment.

CS: For our readers specifically, what advice would you offer to them as they embark on their legal careers?

AE: While learning about legal tech feels like a very daunting task and completely alien territory, my advice would be to get any sources you can: start reading and start learning. It’s not as difficult as it seems. The information is everywhere, and the tech providers and community are open about the tech they’re using, and are willing to send demos and offer short training sessions for those interested. The community is very active. For those wanting to learn, the information is everywhere. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of computer science, which was a comforting piece of news when I embarked on this journey; just learn how it works. It’s very much like using email. You don’t need to know the code that goes into making the email application work; you just need to know how to send your message.