Why LL.M. Students Need Digital Skills

Employer demand is rising for lawyers that can work with technology and data while safeguarding privacy and security

Just like the companies that employ them, in-house lawyers have been forced to embrace new technologies at a rapid pace. And artificial intelligence and machine learning tools are also becoming more important for law firms, which have traditionally been slow to embrace technological innovation.

This means that LL.M. students at law schools, the breeding grounds for the future leaders of legal practice, need more than a passing familiarity with legal technology, the use of software to provide legal services. In fact, they must become fully fledged digital lawyers.

“Lawyers who are adept with various technological tools can work faster and smarter,” says Toni Jaeger-Fine, Assistant Dean of International Programs at New York City’s Fordham Law School. “The more technological aptitude a lawyer has the better off they will be. They will be able to do their work more efficiently and they will be in a position to offer productivity and client-centered solutions to their team.”

Competition for talented lawyers has become a war, with digital lawyers among the most prized. And one way that companies and law firms are helping to recruit and retain staff is to focus on better use of data and technology. For overworked lawyers putting in 80 hours a week, a move to greater digitization of processes and interactions with clients can release some of the grind. Far from automation posing a threat to legal work, it can be a friend rather than a foe.

“The move to greater digitization of processes and interactions with clients helps free lawyers up to actually focus on more strategic valuable and rewarding work,” says Michele DeStefano, professor of law at University of Miami School of Law who specializes in innovation and technology.

That can only be done, however, if the tools are fit for purpose, and if they are adopted in the first place. DeStefano says: “At so many companies and firms, there is a graveyard of tools that could actually help release some of the grind but they don’t because lawyers either haven’t been trained on them or, more likely, they haven’t adopted the necessary mindset to learn the new tool and to adopt new ways of working.”

Matthew D’Amore, director of the Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship Program at Cornell Tech in New York, agrees, underscoring the risks posed by legal technology. “On the one hand, technology gives lawyers and staff immense flexibility,” he says. “Many large firms were even busier during the pandemic without ever setting foot in their offices; that’s all because of advances in communication and collaboration tools. On the other hand, the line between ‘work’ and ‘home’, already thin for lawyers, was completely erased.”

What legal technologies should LL.M. students embrace?

So what legal technologies are most valuable to lawyers? First, those tools that enable knowledge sharing so that lawyers are not answering the same question from different clients, according to Miami Law’s DeStefano. “Probably the most inefficient part of being a lawyer right now is the lack of shared knowledge and the constant repetitive questions that require similar answers.”

The other types of tools that will be very valuable to lawyers are those that enable data analytics. “It’s one thing to collect the data, it’s another thing even to share the data, but wow the beauty and the gold is when you can analyze the data and use the information from that data to make more strategic decisions and create new types of products and services that clients want,” she says.

At the same time, demand from clients is rising for data tools to boost efficiency and keep up with privacy rules. This is the legal profession’s Achilles’ heel, says Fordham’s Jaeger-Fine. “As technology gets increasing sophisticated and commonplace, client expectations rise at the same pace,” she says.

“A tech-savvy attorney can better anticipate and help meet client needs for bespoke tech solutions. They can also understand the myriad privacy and security demands, and are better equipped to more effectively manage those concerns. Those who do not understand the basic issues often misstep, not fully realizing the consequences.”

How LL.M. courses are teaching digital tools

How are LL.M. courses equipping students with the skills to avoid such mistakes and use these digital tools more generally?

Many law schools offer courses in practice management, AI, law and technology, blockchain and other digital assets, cybersecurity, and even coding for lawyers. Courses that allow students to actually engage technologies and hear from those in the field about the potential and need for these tools in practice are particularly productive, says Jaeger-Fine.

“Because LL.M. programs allow students a level of control over their curricular choices, a graduate student can focus their studies on these kinds of offerings, which I believe will expand exponentially in the coming years,” she says. “Students increasingly realize the benefits that these kinds of courses offer to their marketability and efficiency.”

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