LawTech: Get the basics right and the rest will follow

James Kitching
James KitchingWomble Bond Dickinson

As exciting as the rise of legal technology is, a more pressing problem faces the junior end of the profession: too many of us struggle with basic computer literacy.

There is a lot in the legal media at the moment about lawtech (or legaltech) and how it is going to affect the future of junior lawyers. There are plenty of people warning us that our jobs will be lost to robots and AI and that law firms are not acting quickly enough to keep up with it.

The problem is that a lot of these warnings are focusing on the hyperbole of lawtech and aren’t looking at the real issues facing lawyers now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the anoraks of legaltech. I read up daily on the latest developments and deals and I’ve been avidly following the Law Society’s work on AI in the justice system . I find all of it fascinating and can’t wait to see how our profession develops.

But as exciting as all of that is, there is a more pressing problem facing our end of the profession: that too many of us still struggle with even basic computer literacy.

Take my firm as an example. We have just under 250 staff and we have an in-house IT team as well as external support. Despite this I spend (and this is not an exaggeration) an average of three to five hours per week helping others with IT problems. These range from getting keyboards working to using spreadsheets effectively to fixing formatting in documents.

And this isn’t about age or experience; I spend as much time helping the newest and youngest at our firm as I do the oldest and most experienced. Nor is this an isolated case; I’m not alone in my experiences.

Earlier this year I spoke at a lawtech event at Oxford University for university legal careers advisers. Among those speaking alongside me were the CTO for Mishcon de Reya, a representative from Kira Systems (a lawtech product) and the head of innovation technology at BPP. The common message from all of us was that those coming through university and post-graduate courses just aren’t proficient enough in basic IT skills.

The key concern is that a lack of literacy means tasks at work take a lot longer, not because of a lack of legal knowledge, but because of a lack of proficiency at getting it put down on the electronic page. While we were all excited about the future of law, we were concerned that the simplest things aren’t being given enough attention to prepare students for work.

Just last week Christina Blacklaws, the Law Society president, stated at an international conference on AI: ‘At the moment we’re training lawyers for 20th-century practices, not even for current practice … There is a mismatch with what they are doing in practice today, let alone what they will be doing in future.’ This message was echoed by my co-panellists at the Oxford University event and is a startling realisation about the state of the skill-set of the profession.

The problem is, not enough is done at educational institutions to prepare junior lawyers for the actualities of the legal workplace. We learn cases and statutes but for the most part this is done from text books and not on screens.

Being proficient at Instagram and Twitter is all well and good, but they’re relatively simple compared to navigating PLC and LexisNexis, using formulas in spreadsheets and being able to quickly fix cross-references in a 100-page Share Purchase Agreement.

If you want to impress as a junior lawyer then really get to grips with Outlook, Microsoft Office and, once you are in practice, whatever the internal systems are at your firm.

Learn to understand what a CRM system is as well as how to effectively use it. The best way to do this is to play around with it. There will be people like me in every office that you can ask questions of, but try and figure it out for yourself as I’ve always found this the best way to learn.

Google is your friend and and ally - use it! Not only will this make you stand out, it will make your life a hundred times easier and you far more efficient at your work. You will be able to focus on the law without wasting time figuring out how to compare documents and track changes.

From that you will be better equipped to deal with the changes when they come. Lawtech and AI are unquestionably on their way and they are definitely going to alter our profession (although maybe not as quickly as some of the experts claim).

If you’re able to get on top of the basics now, then dealing with those changes later will become a lot easier and will allow you to face the changes in our profession head on, as and when they occur.


James Kitching is a corporate solicitor at Coffin Mews and executive committee member of the Junior Lawyers Division.

This article was first published on 1 October 2018 by Lawyer2b and is reproduced by kind permission.