As legal industry sages try to figure out how best to improve the state of the legal profession, especially around its glacially slow adoption of needed technological innovation, many are looking to law schools to become advocates of this change as well.
To this end, we spoke to Nigel Hudson, who was a commercial property lawyer, before holding senior positions at and the University of Law (previously the College of Law) and Nottingham Law School, where he leads on the design, development and integration of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam, with the new qualification arriving in 2020. Nigel is also a senior lecturer working on the UK Legal Practice Course and General Diploma in Law.
Do you think current legal education is fit to equip students for the modern profession?
No, I don’t, but there’s been awful lot of work going on, and over the past 12 months there’s been an acceleration of that work: the University of Ulster has a dedicated center set up; the University of Law is holding workshops and inviting people in from practice to inform students of what skills are going to be needed; BPP University is doing similar things. But on the whole, the curriculum legal educators are delivering at present is still based on skills that are rapidly being replaced by computers.
What are the key things that have changed, or arrived, which legal educators need to adapt to or include in their courses?
In the current assessments, one of the skills required is the ability to draft a document on a blank sheet of paper with no precedents. Firms have gone beyond precedents now — it’s all automated — so asking a young lawyer to write a contract, or a will, or anything in that manner from scratch is totally unrealistic.
Instead, young lawyers need to understand the content of what goes in that document, and be familiar with the user interface. They need to operate at a much more strategic level, rather than being occupied by the “donkey work” of writing documents. What’s frightening is that we haven’t moved on since the Law Society exams I took in 1988 — 30 years later, we’re still asking young lawyers to do the same things.
What new technologies should we be incorporating?
Document automation and analysis, for one. Nowadays we have software that can analyze a document in comparison to a precedent and give an accurate risk analysis — how many clauses are similar, how many are amended but not high risk, how many are high risk? When I was training in the late ‘80s, if we had a commercial lease that had been amended and gone back and forth between the parties, when the final version came back to us I’d have to sit with my supervising partner while he read it out and I checked it for accuracy. That would take two hours. That’s all automated now.
Another area we’re missing is empathy skills — how to analyze and assess data or risk and then communicate that in a way that the client understands and will help the client in reaching a decision. Students aren’t looking at smart contracts; they’re still looking at old paper contracts. They’re not considering the role of the lawyer as project manager. They’re not looking at financial analysis or cost analysis — if they had to produce a fee estimate, they don’t know how to use software to generate pricing.
We should also be looking beyond legal skills. I’d like to see students think about designing legal technology: wireframing legal processes and procedures so they can help develop new software. I’m very keen on students taking answers to legal questions and setting them out as a series of steps, using a flow chart or a wireframe, rather than a narrative which is what you find with most academic answers to legal problems. That’s the lawyer’s skill — to analyze, plan and negotiate a process — and it’d be innovative if it was set out in a way you could present to an IT developer.
Why is the profession sometimes so reticent to adopt new technologies?
Generally, lawyers are extremely conservative, but the pace of technology is forcing change, and there are young lawyers now coming through with a different attitude. Whether they can keep pace with, or even get ahead of emerging technology, is a different question, particularly in comparison to other professions.
The Big Four accounting firms, for instance, have developed legal management systems using artificial intelligence to handle high-volume legal process work. Now that most of the legal process grunt work can be done by computers, the market is open to anyone with the resources and capacity to compete. And accountants are placed right at the heart of commerce — they have a much closer and consistent relationship with clients than lawyers, who are drafted in at specific points for limited periods of time. Accountants have access to financial information and huge amounts of data which, when you consider the potential of blockchain and smart contracts, could be a significant advantage.
Having said that, the UK’s Magic Circle law firms have set up incubators, inviting people into their offices, giving them extremely valuable real estate in the City, in the hope that something will rub off. Maybe they too will seek to broaden the commercial services they provide.
Would you like to see changes to how students are assessed?
Yes! Let’s reduce the significance of written exams which do nothing but assess the candidates’ ability to remember something on a particular day within a certain number of hours. Let’s require students to fully understand the law and legal processes by assessing them on their ability to take a concept or a procedure and make something new or better. I’d like to ask students to create legal technology — to create something new for the future. Maybe they could pitch that to a panel, as a business idea, by way of assessment.
I’m not expecting a young person to be able to program or create new software, but rather that they will have the information and the knowledge of what’s out there to think about how to deliver legal services in a more professional, efficient way. I certainly think 20-year-olds are capable of that.