IT skills widespread among law students

NEW research suggests almost three quarters of students starting law degrees now have some IT skills, and more than a quarter of law firms have spent £100,000 or more on IT.

The paper written by Leeds University Law Faculty's David Wall, and Jennifer Johnstone of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, concludes that "widespread cultural resistance" to IT is a myth.

But lack of training and difficulty in managing the introduction of IT means UK lawyers are still several years behind their US colleagues, says the report.

"Lawyers are willing to learn and realise the importance of IT," said Wall. "We found that firms tended to want their future employees to have a deep understanding of IT and the way it interfaces with the law. For example, they were impressed by students with IT research skills."

In 1996, a Law Society survey showed 35 per cent of firms had spent more than £50,000 on IT, but only half of those had specialist management staff. According to a questionnaire distributed among Leeds lawyers by Wall and Johnstone, 92 per cent of barristers and 41 per cent of solicitors were self-taught, whereas 42 per cent of solicitors learned their skills through in-house training courses.

Wall and Johnstone found that an equal number of barristers and solicitors use IT in their work irrespective of the size of the firm, but specialists in "new" areas, such as environmental or intellectual property law, use IT the most. Barristers mainly use laptop computers, solicitors mainly use desktop computers.

The problem of access was offered as the reason for the non-use of IT by most solicitors, whereas most barristers who did not use IT said they did not find computers useful in their work or thought they cost too much.

Only eight per cent of solicitors and 19 per cent of barristers said they did not know how to use computers, and only 15 per cent of lawyers thought computing skills were not important.