The traditional start of the school year has got commentators thinking about legal IT education.

Do lawyers need to learn to code? Should firms start including technology competencies in role profiling and assessment, or should it be down to individual lawyers to make sure they are up to speed with the latest software tools? Opinions are divided, ranging from suggestions that all lawyers should learn to code to the opinion that beyond the basic IT competence that is expected in any workplace, fee-earners should focus their efforts on – fee-earning.  

Coding is often presented as an essential 21st century skill, and earlier this year, Australian law firm Gilbert + Tobin organised a week of coding workshops for their lawyers and clients. The rationale was that this would enable lawyers to design apps and smart contracts. However, it is generally agreed that coding is not directly relevant to most legal work – at least not yet. Furthermore, artificial intelligence platforms like Neota Logic enable firms like Taylor Wessing to build apps without the need for coding.

‘Would learning to code make you a better lawyer, or would it qualify you to be a software developer for legal technology products?’ asks Andrew Joint, commercial and technology partner at Kemp Little. Joint believes that his work requires him to understand coding and technical matters rather than become competent at them. ‘Because my work covers software development, I need to know what source code is, for example, because it is relevant to clauses covering intellectual property, data transfer and liability,’ he explains. ‘But whether I can write code is irrelevant because that doesn’t impact on how well I do my job. However, it would be relevant if I wanted to design software that delivered legal services,’ he says, adding that one Kemp Little fee-earner who can code is creating a bespoke solution for the firm.

Alex Hamilton, CEO at Radiant Law, a boutique firm that specialises in advising on technology and other outsourcing contracts, is one lawyer who can code. Because Radiant Law writes its own proprietary software, Hamilton needs to be able to work through technical points with the firm’s technologists, but he doesn’t believe that coding is a relevant skill for most lawyers: ‘It is similar to learning how to read a balance sheet, or understanding statistical forecasting techniques: it might come in useful, but it is not a core skill. Furthermore, coding is just a fraction of what technologists do – it is the equivalent of drafting for lawyers.’

Hamilton believes that interesting things happen at the crossover between the legal and technology disciplines. ‘Much of the benefit comes from the ability to see the opportunities that tech brings to law and communicate meaningfully with experts in both disciplines. And we will get the most value when technologists and lawyers work together rather than half learn each other’s skills,’ he explains. ‘So although it doesn’t make sense for most lawyers to learn to code, they do need basic tech skills.’

Joint and Hamilton refer to the ‘hygiene factor’ in terms of tech skills, which is that lawyers should be confident in their ability to use workplace technology such as email, Word and Excel. Beyond this, they should know what tools are available and understand where they might be helpful.  

A common challenge for law firms is the wide range of abilities and attitudes across a multigenerational workforce and the requirements of different roles and practice areas. ‘It is hard to say that all lawyers need particular tech skills and training,’ explains Stefan Winquist, CIO at Danish firm Bech-Bruun. ‘This is not just about providing software and training people to use it. It can also involve generational culture. Some older partners delegate their time entry to their secretaries because they feel that having a secretary [confers] status, while others do time-recording on their iPhones as they feel that they are optimising their travel time.’

Tech can certainly boost operational efficiency and productivity, but this is not necessarily reflected in revenue or profit margins. Although Winquist could produce efficiency savings of between 10% and 20% if all Bech-Bruun’s lawyers used the firm’s systems efficiently, he explains that it is difficult to convince highly successful fee-earners to work differently.

While Winquist addresses this by providing a variety of technology and training resources to reflect the broad spectrum of working practices across the firm, not all firms have the size and capacity to do this.

Corporate clients are driving tech competency in law firms as legal departments look more closely at the breakdown of their external legal fees.

This is an important factor in the growing movement towards benchmarking legal tech competencies. The trailblazer was Casey Flaherty, former in-house counsel at Kia Motors, who introduced a test for Kia’s panel firms based on Microsoft Word and Excel tasks. Flaherty’s company, Procertas, provides Legal Technology Assessment (LTA) software which tests lawyers’ tech competence, based on how long it takes to complete a particular task. Hamilton approves of this because it measures efficiency by the time taken to carry out tasks rather than the methodology – so it helps corporate legal teams check that their money is not being wasted through lawyers using tech inefficiently.

However, there is a clear cultural divide. While some lawyers are talking about learning to code, others feel that workplace technology should be as intuitive as using an iPad and require little or no training.

Catherine Bamford, director of BamLegal, works with law firms on document automation and workflow systems. Document automation addresses the tech competency issue in two ways – lawyers do not have to edit documents, and using the software requires only rudimentary tech competence. Bamford believes that an intuitive (as far as possible) user interface encourages lawyers to use technology; and the more they use it, the more familiar it becomes. Bamford’s benchmark is that it should be as straightforward as booking a flight online.

However, not all legal-specific software is intuitive, so lawyers need to learn how to use it. Stuart Whittle IS and operations director at Weightmans, draws an analogy with driving a car. ‘You don’t need to understand mechanics, but you do have to learn to drive,’ he says, adding that legal technology addresses a specific set of applications and solutions, so a case management system that brings together workflows, precedents and management information cannot be entirely intuitive.

Whittle does not believe that lawyers’ attitude to tech is a generational issue. ‘Trainees who have grown up with the internet are no better at these systems than the older generation – everyone has to learn them.’ He concedes that while intuitive apps tend to have a single objective – shopping or banking, for example – time-poor lawyers often fail to engage with the fact that feature-rich case management systems require some upfront investment in tech skills.

A potential solution is to introduce external benchmarking standards. Last week saw the launch of new resources from LTC4 (the Legal Technology Core Competencies Coalition), a not-for-profit group of trainers and training providers that has established a competency framework for legal IT skills. Twenty of its 80-plus members are UK law firms. As training consultant Joanne Humber explains, LTC4 has developed nine workflows ranging from generalist skills such as working with legal documents to specific applications. Firms can choose from these options to build their own training frameworks, which can then be certified by LTC4, which also offers individual certification.

However, legal IT solutions often relate to specific areas of work, so not everything is relevant to everyone. Weightmans has recognised this by establishing a set of tech competencies for different roles across the firm, supported by training and assessment. The next step is to link competencies to role profiles and requirements in order to establish a base level of IT competency across the firm. One measure of success will be fewer calls to the help desk.

Burges Salmon’s hybrid solution is predicated on self-assessment and self-directed learning. Head of knowledge management Carol Aldridge believes that lawyers need to be good enough at technology to harness the value that it brings to their clients. To this end, Burges Salmon lawyers are offered the opportunity to sign up to the firm’s ‘FIT for business’ professional development programme, which includes training on specific legal software. ‘Our lawyers take responsibility for filling in any gaps in their tech skills that might emerge from utilising workflows that include multiple applications,’ Aldridge explains. ‘Everyone gets basic induction training, and lawyers help themselves to additional training and support as and when they need it.’

Hamilton agrees: ‘Let’s encourage an auto-didactic approach and open-mindedness to new ideas so that people can apply different skills to finding imaginative ways of finding solutions for clients.’

Legal Geek Conference

On the theme of open-mindedness and imagination in legal IT, 2016 is the year of the lawtech start-up. Of course, there have always been start-ups in the legal sector and many of them apply cutting-edge technology to legal services delivery, but this year has seen greater interest in new and established communities that actively encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. This is a welcome and refreshing development and The Law Society is pleased to be supporting Legal Geek Conference, the world’s first lawtech start-up conference and awards on 18 October.

Organised by Jimmy Vestbirk, who organised Europe’s first Law for Good hackathon in March (I was privileged to be on the judging panel) the Legal Geek Conference promises to be an exciting event. Unlike conventional legal IT conferences, it showcases today’s innovators with a view to encouraging and inspiring future innovators and potential investors from the legal and public sector.

There is also a chance to get involved in generating ideas and putting them into action to extend access to legal services in rural communities at the second Law For Good hackathon. There is a special discount code for Law Society members – so come and take a look at a new generation of legal IT.

LMS annual conference taking place in April 2017

The Law Management Section annual conference is one of the leading events for practice management in the legal profession. This flagship event is a varied mix of plenary and breakout sessions giving you the opportunity to discuss common challenges, share experiences and hear practical guidance from peers and expert speakers.

Register early to benefit from the early bird booking discount.