October 26, 2009

SCL Conference

I was at Bath for the Conference only on the Friday – so for only one day of the two-day SCL Conference. But, although I missed Saturday’s proceedings, I feel confident in saying that it was a great success. I am bolstered in that view by what I have heard of the formal and informal feedback from those who did attend but I mainly formed the view based on what I saw.

It wasn’t the presentations themselves. Although there was considerable sparkle from presenters, it was the exchanges between panel members and from the floor – where delegates with frightening expertise sometimes revealed themselves – that most impressed. That chimed with a suggestion from one speaker, Malcolm Bennett, that more recognition is needed that it is not just the lawyer’s job to screw the other side but to ensure that the project to which a contract relates will actually work (I paraphrase wildly). He must have been impressed with the exchanges that followed on outsourcing and government contracting – where rival lawyers worked hard to define best approaches from which positive initiatives may emerge.

The Conference proceedings are replete with commercial awareness – a characteristic of SCL conferences. There’s no end of intelligence being applied to find innovative legal solutions that make business sense and suit all parties. (Perhaps a lesson here for the OGC, given their adherence to the relatively moribund terms they insist upon.) I was genuinely impressed.

Friday left me feeling very positive about SCL’s future, and about the future for IT lawyers, and I am sure that feeling is widely shared by those that attended. 

Susskind and a New Legal Era

One threat to my positive feelings about the future of IT lawyers was closer than I realised. First up on the Saturday of the Conference was a filmed conversation between Derek Southall and Professor Richard Susskind, which drew even the hungover and the late-night revellers. 

It is a fascinating exchange and remains available for viewing via the SCL site. 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.  

The issue that threatens my positive feelings is the future of 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. 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’ work 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 stations to use instant messaging (after exhausting the FAQs) and a call centre based in Vietnam. But there remains a huge potential imbalance. 

I think the answer is to be found in the spirit and approach shown at the SCL Conference. Lawyers will increasingly be business-orientated and 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 – 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.