This article was first published by the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) at The College of Law as a CLI Blog post on 2 May 2019. We gratefully acknowledge Rachel Treasure and CLI for their kind permission for re-publication.
There is continual discussion surrounding the rapid emergence of legal technology. There has been much debate about the impact this technology will have and what jobs it might take away. As outlined in part 2 of this series the glimpses of a highly automated future can be hard to reconcile with the daily experience of legal work which is mostly still carried out using a phone, email and Word documents. As such, as a recent law grad, I find the discussion interesting, in particular with regard to what influence technology will have on the role that junior lawyers play and how they learn and develop their legal expertise.
This article is part 3 in a series of blogs looking at what the legal industry means by “legal expertise”, in particular whether it should be defined by reference to the technical requirements of the law or whether it should be defined from a service perspective. This part looks at the current experiences of junior lawyers in law firms to understand what they are being asked to do and how the existing mechanisms or processes which have been set up to transfer that expertise, support them (or not) to complete those tasks.
We have all heard about how the increasing sophistication of legal technology and smarts is a threat to the profession, in particular junior lawyers. Reports indicate that AI tools can now read and understand or draft contracts that senior lawyers would have traditionally asked junior lawyers to tackle first. Without this foundational learning, there is an argument that junior lawyers will not have a process to develop and refine their legal skills. But is that correct? If that technology removes the laborious tasks of the legal world, such as discovery, then it also allows junior lawyers to have more time to focus on refining their critical thinking, analysis and other skills required to be a successful lawyer.
It would seem, therefore, that contemporary legal practice requires a new and different way to transfer legal expertise and support junior lawyers in developing their capabilities – one that starts at a different point on the expertise continuum and augments the use of legaltech in practice.
Regardless of the level of technology within a firm but as a result of it, junior lawyers can learn and work collaboratively with their supervising partners at the same time as working autonomously. For example the WorkShare File Comparison software supports the uploading of two documents and a comparison between them. This has paved the way for a new virtual work practice where supervising partners review online first drafts by junior lawyers, make changes, send it back to the junior lawyer to see these changes, discuss it and subsequently send the final draft to the client. This provides flexibility (because the lawyers can be located anywhere), efficiency (because changes can be made and reviewed at any time) and continues to promote learning opportunities for the junior lawyer.
Another example of technology assisting junior lawyers is the use of collaborative platforms for firm-wide precedents. Where these are maintained, updated and regularly contributed to, they provide an invaluable resource and database of collective expertise and knowledge for the whole firm and especially junior lawyers. Ready access to this database also improves efficiency and response time for clients.
Technology has provided an enhanced opportunity for junior lawyers to take the initiative to learn and develop. In doing this, it has also changed the role of the senior lawyer from instructor to mentor and coach. When senior and junior lawyers meet, more time can now be spent on discussing client needs and expectations and supporting junior lawyers to develop business acumen – the capabilities that come from experience and expertise that a junior lawyer will not have upon graduating.
Senior and junior lawyer meetings also need not be confined to a particular matter. Expertise can also be transferred through, for example, firm-wide CLE sessions. In these sessions, someone from the firm may present on recent case law or go through one of the firm’s precedents and explain the key clauses to be aware of when drafting a document. These sessions are usually short, about one hour, provide up-to-date information in the subject area and also highlight the areas of practice and expertise within the firm.
Rather than technology removing the ability for juniors to learn, it is providing new and different opportunities for that to take place, enhancing firm-wide capabilities and supporting staff retention - people will move on from a law firm if they do not feel they are learning and advancing. Those law firms that are more short-sighted and take the view that technology can replace their junior lawyers, will likely find themselves with an unhappy workplace, a high turnover of staff due to their lack of development and consequently unhappy clients who are faced with a constant stream of new lawyers working on their matters.
For junior lawyers, technology provides more opportunities than threats. Those who are willing to work with technology will use it to their advantage to have tasks completed faster and better and more focussed discussions with their supervising partner. Junior lawyers who aren’t willing to use legaltech like document automation tools or other relevant software, may find it more difficult getting ahead. Keeping an open mindset to the benefits that technology can bring and how it can be used alongside a lawyer, is the key to junior lawyers developing and sustaining a career in legal practice.