In 2016, partners at Addleshaw Goddard were dealing with a massive client commercial project. Although the nature of the project is wrapped in confidentiality issues, a few months in, the lawyers realised there was no way to complete it with traditional methods: the amount of documents was just too broad, spanning a timeline of years that no available system could manage.
Kerry Westland, current head of innovation and then senior manager within the firm’s transaction services team in Manchester, decided help was needed. Senior technology paralegal Tom Hinton was brought in to work on the project alongside two other paralegals, Olivia Hancock and Mike Kennedy.
It was the basis of what would become Addleshaws’ innovation and legal technology (ILT) team, led by Westland and comprising more than a dozen specialists.
However, it was also the beginning of a process that, only one year later, culminated in Addleshaws handing these three paralegals the opportunity to qualify as lawyers by working in the team.
The decision mirrors a wider awakening in the legal market around the role technology is likely to play in the careers of future lawyers. Over the past year, firms including Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy (A&O) have launched new offerings that target the most valuable link in the evolutionary chain of firms: trainees.
They are aiming to create a hybrid of lawyers and technologists, ready to tackle a profession where matters will become projects, firms will compete with alternative providers for a place on the juiciest panels and the billable hour will at last tick its final second, replaced by what clients refer to as “added value”.
The Lawyer met the three trainees who signed up for a contract training within Addleshaws’ ILT team in one of the firm’s London conference rooms on an unusually warm afternoon in February.
As suit and tie-clad lawyers made their way through the revolving doors and up the stairs, the three trainees, wearing sneakers and backpacks after their train journey from Manchester, came in and sat at the table.
In September 2017, after working with the two other paralegals on developing technology to get the deal through, Hinton was offered the chance to divert his training contract and focus entirely on technology and innovation within the ILT team. The following year, in March 2018, Hancock and Kennedy joined him.
“It would have been too easy to ignore the impact of technology,” Kennedy recalls. “None of us was educated in this area, but we could see that it was an opportunity to work on actual projects and make things possible.”
The former paralegals found themselves supporting lawyers with tools and software solutions for client matters, learning to code and dealing directly with clients in workshops and collaboration sessions. While they were spending months on extensive document reviews, the team grew organically.
“It was not a big bang, but the gradual upping of requests for new pieces of tech,” Westland recalls.
She hired four senior managers to oversee the main areas covered by the group: internal efficiency to improve service through use of platforms and tools; client projects entailing the development of technology to complement fee-earning efforts; and research and development of new applications.
Following the introduction of the technology training contract, Westland and her team decided to launch a new secondment programme that allows associates to join the team for a rotation seat. When it was launched last year, four associates signed up for the programme.
“While the trainees had a good grasp of how technology works, associates could bring domain expertise around their areas of law,” she adds.
Finance and projects associate Emma Wells, corporate associate Ellen Catherall and real estate managing associate Kathryn Law accepted to distance themselves from fee-earning and, over six to eight months, they embraced the challenges of a very different job.
A new approach
The daily schedule of the trainees and associates working within the ILT team looks quite different from that of a regular training contract.
Instead of learning how things are done traditionally, they are asked to come up with how to do them in new ways.
In addition to deepening their legal knowledge around various areas of laws, they are tasked with ensuring information is spread efficiently and that data is monetised into smooth systems aimed at assisting fee-earners. The measure of success is no longer the number of hours charged, but how a solution connects to a specific client need.
“It is more about the answer to a question,” says Kennedy, who has been specialising in the use of artificial intelligence software Kira and HighQ, applied to large-scale banking due diligence reviews. He feels like they get to engage with clients on another level. What is their problem? Has he really understood what the issue is? If the problem is clear, then it is time to get out there and explore options.
Although trainees and associates tend to collaborate collectively on big client projects, they have also found their own niche. For instance, Tom Hinton particularly likes applying technology to corporate deals, as his initial training contract was mainly related to this practice. Similarly, Hancock gained experience in real estate and employment, as well as issues concerning in-house management and outsourcing.
Young recruits in the team are asked to get under the skin of what clients need. But they are also expected to closely collaborate with partners.
“It is about being knowledgeable, working on both sides,” Hancock says.
This relationship reaches a peak during pitches. The trainees and associates from the ILT team regularly appear alongside Westland during client meetings, where they stage live demos of their ideas. It is a way to visualise problems and explain benefits and risks in a format that combines every element – technology, legal aspects and processes – in one framework. And clients are buying in.
“There was never reluctance towards our methods. They just expect us to deliver,” Westland explains.
If anything, due to the hype around legal technology, they find themselves trying to manage clients’ expectations. “These are long-term projects,” says Westland. “The legal industry still does not have the structure to sustain new technology. They used to do everything on Word documents. It is about use cases and gradual progress.”
However, trainees and associates have achieved things that, until little more than a year ago, they did not think they would be able to.
Wells carried out a painstaking in-depth analysis that mapped processes within a banking transaction as part of her secondment, scoping the project’s costs when it came to deciding whether to build or buy new solutions.
The entire experience was so meaningful that, when her secondment was edging closer to the end and she was asked if she wished to stay, she said yes. She became the first associate in the City to qualify within a technology team.
In addition, Hinton played a major role in developing what is now dubbed AGS Transact, a platform that assesses the whole real estate transaction life cycle.
As Law, who spent 11 years in private practice and decided to accept this secondment, puts it: “It is about finding solutions without increasing fees. It is like pulling threads together and inputting the value of technology to improve the old processes of institutional work.”
The whole experience became the answer to an educational void that, if unfilled, could leave the next generation of lawyers unprepared for a dramatically different business.
Determined to restructure the way they train new recruits, other firms have developed similar initiatives.
Clifford Chance has launched a training contract focused on law tech that leads to qualification as a solicitor.
The scheme, which was named Ignite, will initially take on five trainees in autumn 2021, in addition to the 90 currently recruited for its traditional training contract route. Mirroring its seat rotations structure, it will focus on law tech and accept graduates from all backgrounds, as long as they can provide examples of how they have redefined a process by thinking differently.
“It is important that trainees have protected time to develop and build stuff without being interrupted by drafting,” says partner Jonathan Kewley, who designed the scheme with head of graduate recruitment Laura Yeates and graduate recruitment specialist Yasmina Kone. “They will have to pitch ideas showing they are profitable.”
As with Addleshaws’ programme, trainees at Clifford Chance will be required to gain legal expertise and think imaginatively through technology, getting to know the business and collaborating with partners on matters.
Similarly, A&O has developed a legal technology and project management graduate scheme within the firm’s advanced delivery programme. Many members of this unit are lawyers who decided to become technologists or legal project managers.
Daniel Francis, a trainee from the scheme’s first cohort, found himself attending traditional contract classes such as courses on company accounts and financial economics. However, he also immediately sat across all practice groups, with access to a wider range of projects.
He might spend his day co-ordinating a Brexit-related due diligence transaction, mediating between international offices, assisting with budgeting or monitoring workstreams across the parties involved.
At this early stage in his career, he had the chance to collaborate on the development of Margin Xchange, a derivatives contract negotiation tool created by the firm’s capital markets group. “The main benefit is the diversity of experiences involved,” he says.
“This ranges from those who have worked in their field for their entire career, those who have made the switch from completely different professions and lawyers who were attracted by the thought of working in an alternative career path.
“The firm’s culture is very much one of knowledge-sharing, so there is a wealth of experience to draw upon.”
The constant interaction with lawyers is one of the strongest motives behind the contracts piloted by these firms. “They have the chance to look at a wider range of projects. There is much more exposure to practice groups,” says Addleshaws senior manager Dan Morley, who joined from Eversheds Sutherland last January to oversee legal technology efforts.
The scheme has garnered major involvement from partners.
Addleshaws real estate partners Catherine Fearnhead and Ian Smith, banking partner Richard Oman and head of corporate governance Will Chalk all became mentors to the trainees and regular collaborators on pilots.
The experience is so new that partners and trainees find themselves less in a hierarchical structure than a collective journey into what is still a discomfort zone.
A licence to be bombastic
“The instinct of trainees is to be quiet and deferential,” says Clifford Chance’s Kewley. “We want them to be questioning the business and be bombastic in terms of creative ideas. We are all working towards the same goal.”
How will success be measured? Firms think these 20-somethings will help win new pitches, get on the best panels and revolutionise how firms work.
“A number of people want to stay in firms but leave the life of traditional lawyers behind. They are hybrids. They are unicorns,” Morley says.
As with any new initiative, it is hard to outline the trajectory these trainees and associates will take once they qualify. But the lack of blueprint could easily be their greatest resource.
Westland’s role as head of innovation and legal technology at Addleshaws, for instance, did not exist before she filled it. “I thrive off not being told what to do and forging my own path,” she says. “They have a training contract like everyone else. They will be fully qualified with the added value of working on large projects that link back to every division.”
While associate Wells will stay and qualify within Addleshaws’ tech team, her colleagues Catherall and Law will soon be back to fee-earning.
Some people were initially surprised by Law’s decision to temporarily leave her senior associate role.
“It was such a big change in my working life, going from the immediate gratification of completing a deal to projects that take much more time,” she says.
“I picked up an entire new language, tried coding, and worked with people I had never even interacted with.”
Catherall, too, feels like she will go back to her corporate practice with a new perspective. “It is about our future,” she explains. “It was never time away. It was time spent differently.”