The role that many elite law school graduates aspire to is being changed profoundly by digital technology: in-house counsel. Many legal departments operate in an antiquated way with paper processes, but demand is increasing for in-house lawyers who understand how to use technology to provide companies with better legal strategies and services.
Post-LL.M. employment opportunities are blossoming for digital-first in-house lawyers. And Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean of International programs at New York’s Fordham Law School, believes this trend is likely to accelerate in the coming years.
She says: “One of the advantages of moving more legal work in-house is that it allows companies to better integrate law with their business. In this way, lawyers can act as true business partners and problem solvers in the most effective and efficient way possible.”
The hallmark of a digitally proficient in-house lawyer is understanding how data can be used to service the company. “These lawyers genuinely appreciate that data is at the heart of and drives most business decisions,” says Jaeger-Fine. “They have the ability to adopt and use technology to gain business insights and reshape the way the legal team delivers services.”
Harnessing data for efficiency
Harnessing the power of digital technology can allow lawyers to be more data driven than many currently are, she says. “Using data to drive decisions in the legal department promotes genuine business-legal partnerships,” Jaeger-Fine says. “Corporate strategy, business development, deals, and risk analysis are all heavily data-driven.”
Digital-first counsel will also use technology to automate systems and commoditized work, she adds. In-house digital lawyering means rethinking which processes should be done by humans and which are best handled by machines. “Machines generally should be used for low-risk, high-volume tasks,” Jaeger-Fine says. “This enables attorneys to focus more on the many tasks and strategic issues that can be performed effectively only by humans.”
Even if tedious tasks can be automated, it’s important that lawyers remain involved in designing and monitoring the processes, to ensure they meet high ethical standards. “We need to remain mindful about where human skills provide a premium,” says Jaeger-Fine. “So much of the value that in-house counsel provide is found in their judgment, which can never be automated or digitized.”
She warns against becoming “tools of our tools” and adds that collaboration, especially with a team that is diverse and inclusive, “adds real value of the type that cannot be replicated electronically”.
What also sets digital lawyers apart is the ability to deconstruct the practice of law and bring a fresh perspective to work out better ways to serve the company. For example, in-house legal teams are embracing design thinking, the human-centered approach to problem-solving.
“Many design mindsets — focusing on the client, committing to testing and iterating their new solutions — are now much more common in legal circles than 10 years ago,” says Margaret Hagan, director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University, founded in 2013.
She adds that learning the approach is valuable for LL.M. students: “Design thinking tools, mindsets, and ways of working all have value for the individual lawyer who wants to be more creative, [and] a better communicator.”
Beyond that, Stefano Barazza, senior lecturer in intellectual property law at Swansea University, stresses that digital-first in-house lawyers are leaders and team players, because they realize that legal innovation occurs at the intersection of multiple disciplines.
“They cultivate diversity and openness, recognizing the importance of emotional intelligence, resilience and open communication,” says the director of the LL.M. in Legal Technology at the UK law school. “They may be competent programmers, take a keen interest in the regulation of technology or be pro-active entrepreneurs: whatever their skills and interests, they are characterized by the desire to engage with others to bring about positive change.”
Companies are increasingly demanding LL.M. graduates with technical skills
Alejandro Touriño, co-director of the Master in Legal Tech program at Spain’s IE Law School, says that companies are demanding a new set of legal and technical skills. “A wide variety of opportunities are open for LL.M. graduates. Some of them will lead the digital transformation of their corporate counsels.”
He says that an open-minded approach is needed for success as a digital-first in-house lawyer, including analytical thinking, creativity, programming, critical thinking, leadership and emotional intelligence.
For lawyers with these skills, employment opportunities in-house abound. “Some of the most prominent companies in the world are digital enterprises,” Touriño points out. “They need lawyers with deep knowledge both of the sector and the technology deployed. In addition, traditional companies are going through a digital transformation process that requires digital lawyers.”