At the recent LegalTech event hosted at the Justis HQ, we sat down for a conversation with one of the panellists, Mary Bonsor of F-LEX, to discuss the next generation of legal practitioners.
This unique insight from the founder of a growing LegalTech start-up that deals with both law students and law firms offers an interesting perspective on the uptake of legal technology in law firms, the new challenges universities face in preparing students for a legal career, and the skills students might need to stand out in the future.
We began by asking for her thoughts on one of the central questions of the event:
Are law students who grow up around technology better equipped for the future of the legal industry?
We really need to think about how we prepare our law students for the future, and specifically what kind of training they’re going to need to do to understand legal technology. The legal industry also needs to make sure that they are prepared for the changes that technology will continue to bring, and make sure they’re equipped to change their training practices as these changes happen, as current students begin and move through their career. There definitely has to be a balance between training people and ensuring that they are good lawyers but also making sure they are comfortable with the legal technology platforms that are available.
At F-LEX, have you noticed any trends which suggest that law firms want students with particular technology skills?
Some law firms are definitely asking for students who have used certain tools before, such as the e-discovery tool, “Relativity”, but I think this will become a much more common trend in the future. I can see law firms requesting students who have had experience with and understand more recent LegalTech companies, such as Luminance or Kira. I hope we can help encourage our students to learn about these systems, and gain experience with them, so they can really jump into firms and be the ones that understand the software. We are beginning to place students who are signed up with us in Legal Tech companies, which I love, and it’s giving them exposure to the new ways of doing things.
In your experience, do you feel that students aren’t really taught about the availability of legal tech outside of legal research?
To some extent, although I do think it depends on the university. For example, Swansea University are building a combined law and computer science school – I think they’re the first university to do that, so I would say that they’re the trendsetters right now. I think in time the law schools at other universities will adopt this approach because it’s going to be something that law firms will begin to expect students to know.
Do you believe that in the future we will see law firms demanding legal tech skills, and universities then having to adapt to that?
It’s a tricky one, but that’s potentially what will happen. It’s really about trying to encourage universities to prepare their students in the best way for a career in law, but it’s challenging. For example, I know Manchester University are also bringing in legal innovation modules and have run a series of events to allow students to see what LegalTech companies are out there. I think the tech is still a little bit embryonic so potentially in five years’ time it will be a complete necessity, but no-one really knows the impact yet. I think law schools are perhaps waiting to see where technology will go, and they’ll react to that.
Alongside waiting for the technology to develop and really be adopted, there are traditional law firms that don’t want to change their practices. This makes it hard for law schools to know what approach to take when you’ve got some law firms who are very resistant to technology, and others who are openly embracing it, so I think they’re in quite a tricky position.
The forthcoming Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is something else to consider. It will give a route for people from other backgrounds, such as those who are in legal technology as a career, to demonstrate those transferable skills as part of working towards a qualification as a solicitor. We don’t know how the industry will react to it yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Are students based in cities that aren’t traditionally seen as ‘legal hubs’ at a disadvantage when it comes to availability of internships at law firms?
I think that’s changing. An increasing number of law firms in London now have outsourced offices, and these are growing in other cities, where rents tend to be a bit cheaper. This increases the opportunities available, so I actually think that wherever you are in the UK there are opportunities if you’re willing to find them.
Mary Bonsor is the founder of F-LEX, a platform which connects pre-vetted law students to law firms and general counsel for a flexible, on-demand service. Before setting up F-LEX, Mary was a property litigator at Winckworth Sherwood LLP.