Careers Advice for Aspiring Lawyers

October 17, 2009

I have caught up on one of the things I missed at the SCL Conference. The opening item on the Saturday of the Conference was a filmed conversation between Derek Southall and Professor Richard Susskind OBE. I am reliably informed that it drew even the hungover and the late-night revellers from their beds with more alacrity than John Peel’s ‘view haloo’. There were a number of wake-up calls in the content too.

It is a fascinating exchange and remains available for viewing {here:}. I wish I had watched it at the Conference to witness the reaction to Richard’s hint that junior lawyers are overpaid. The interview is no substitute for reading ‘The End of Lawyers?’, which covers most of what was said in more detail, but Derek’s perceptive questions alerted me to one issue that may have washed past me when reading the book in the waves of ideas contained in it.

Given all the myriad promised developments and the call for more for less from clients, what are the prospects for lawyering as a career for those entering the professions now. Richard expressed concern about the failure to focus on what the 15,000 students looking for a career in law will actually do – that concern is sound. All the pressures, technological and business, tend towards a reduction in the numbers engaged in so-called ‘high value’ legal work. We may well see the development of careers in legal process analysis (well paid) and as a legal knowledge engineer (relative pittance) as Richard suggests but the numbers are not likely to rival those lost to document assembly software and legal process outsourcing to India (to name but two). ‘Low value’ may be less easily threatened – it will be some time before PACE and the legal aid budget are savaged so as to require detainees at police station to use instant messaging (after exhausting the FAQs) and a call centre based in Vietnam (although at the present rate it may come sooner than I’d like). Lawyers in family law and those working with the disadvantaged generally may be largely unaffected by the legal revolution – where the skill is in determining the problem and acting as the advocate for those unable to help themselves, technology has a limited role to play and there seems less room for disruptive technology. But there remains a huge potential imbalance and high value work is especially threatened.

I think the answer is to be found in the spirit and approach shown at the SCL Conference. There we saw a real appreciation of the business needs that lawyers supply – indeed there are many who feel that they have a better grasp of those needs than the clients themselves. To prosper in career terms, commercial lawyers will increasingly be business-orientated and might well move on to be capable of high-level management in a commercial context where their legal skills are merely a backdrop to their project management skills.

That is the way of the future for IT lawyers – I think we might even see people slip in and out of law to pursue a management role much more frequently than we do now.

And if it leads to some senior figures in industry committing hari kari at the prospect of more lawyers on their patch, then there’ll be all the more openings available.