Making Work, Work

The skills that today’s generation of legal leaders have learned have evolved and tomorrow’s legal leaders will need to rely on new skills adapted to our times for success. These skills will stray somewhat from a straight-forward traditional legal knowledge education and to create this 21st century legal education, providers are working with practitioners and legal firms.

Providers offering bespoke legal tech education

Ten years ago, legal tech skills were the realm of legal nerds with a niche knowledge of coding and technology. Today, legal tech has become a widespread buzz word, legal tech events attract thousands of legal leaders of all ages and legal educators have jumped onto the legal tech bandwagon. Current legal practice course providers such as BPP offer a Legal Technology Innovation and Design module that teaches “an area at the forefront of new skills sought by recruiters [which] focus[es] on building the innovation skills that future solicitors will be expected to demonstrate, including understand[ing] legal technology (e.g. AI, Blockchain, Big Data, and Automation) develop[ing] project management skills and techniques, learn[ing] skills to design technology that responds to problems and engag[ing] in design thinking and process mapping vital in the legal workplace.”

There has also been a rise in more innovative law departments offering more fit for purpose bespoke legal and technology courses. As Alex Smith, Global RAVN Product Lead at iManage and co-author of the book Do Lawyers Need to Learn to Code? A Practitioner Perspective on the ‘Polytechnic’ Future of Legal Education says, “the growth of these initiatives designed to prepare students for the increasingly technological nature of practice reinforces the increased importance placed on cultivating a system of ‘work-ready’ graduates”.

One such course is the Innovation, Technology and the Law LLM at the University of Edinburgh, attended by Ekaterina Harrison, postgraduate student and highly experienced banking & finance lawyer. She chose the course because of her long-standing interest in digital technologies and how people use them. Digital assets, tokenisation, behavioural analysis and other innovations are opening up new opportunities and changing finance products.

“Lawyers like me,” Harrison says, “need thorough knowledge and understanding of the digital space”.

She studies alongside working and was drawn to the flexible approach of the course, which is both part-time and online, allowing her to continue with her main practice areas of banking and finance.

What skills are required by lawyers of the future?

Smith in part agrees with Harrison, writing that in his years of working in legal innovation, his observations are twofold.

“The first is the need to enable the application of learning and skill-building as early as possible to enhance workplace performance; the second is the need to have a core base of legal knowledge”, concluding that “future commercial lawyers need to experience a tertiary education much more akin to an apprenticeship” and that “lawyers of the future will interact with the technology, not write it”.

In other exchanges, he was more forthright and suggested that while tomorrow’s lawyers could benefit from skills such as understanding data, how data is building up, how to measure using data and how to investigate in data (eg eDiscovery or contract discovery) as well as better visualisation of end product skills, learning to code would not yield as clear-cut benefits. Instead, he favoured the idea that lawyers, in general, could stand to work more closely alongside other professionals. More specifically, while lawyers should definitely equip themselves with enough knowledge to be able to work alongside tech developers, product managers, UX, and data scientists, he didn’t believe that lawyers needed that level of professional skills themselves.

That is certainly something highlighted by Harrison as a benefit she has seen in her work, directly attributable to the course. “I think lawyers could learn a lot from how software developers work”, she says. “I mean, the adoption of agile practices. Not all principles of agile working are applicable to legal work but a lot could be borrowed and tailored.” She also mentions a specific example of where new technical skills were coming in useful.

“For example, I can do simple coding in Python. When I worked on a big document migration project, my basic programming skills helped me to analyse thousands of lines of information in Excel. If I had not known how to interpret the data, I would not even have attempted it. But I knew and it was a great benefit for the project. I would identify programming and project management as technical skills that can potentially turn a good lawyer into a great one”.

Using tech skills to the client’s advantage

Another lawyer we spoke to made it clear that she believed “understanding data is key for business – if you can access and use your own data, you can develop a competitive advantage over your competitors”. Clare Weaver, a legal consultant and previously in-house counsel, now specialises in using legal tech to her client’s advantage. After two Oxford University Online courses from the Said Business School in Bitcoin Strategy and AI, she was able to re-skill to a more tech-orientated skillset. This allows her to be able to advise clients in both the FinTech and tech sectors, in particular that knowledge of how AI works and what applications can be used.

Weaver too speaks of how helpful it is for lawyers to be able to understand how natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning works. She reiterates Smith’s point that she doesn’t think lawyers need to learn to code but “should understand how developers create and build products, whilst guiding the user experience side of things which is most important of a product is to be useful”. “For me”, she says, “that’s the most interesting point – how to adapt products for use by different users and why adoption differs in different communities”.

But do lawyers need to learn to code?

No, seems to be the general thought. As Smith summarises, tomorrow’s lawyers “should be developing curiosity, humility, growth mindset and willingness to work in truly cross-functional teams” or, as he concludes in his book, “developing their interpersonal skills, comprehending the emerging user-centric business world, engaging with their curiosity and creative problem-solving skills, listening carefully to their clients’ needs and openly engaging with the changing world within which their clients operate and the leadership dynamic that governs that operation”.

In other words, a legal tech qualification isn’t ever going to make you a tech professional (and physically being able to code isn’t necessary) but getting a good grounding and understanding of the tech space generally may well help you be a better future lawyer in a world that is now definitely digital.

The Legal Update

While cryptocurrency valuations may currently be in a state of decline, confidence around them being a long term prospect seems to be increasing, and more people in the legal industry are taking note. At Obelisk Support,  we follow this topic with interest as our clients get on the cryptocurrency bandwagon. Investment fund lawyer John Lore advises clients on cryptocurrencies and investments as part of his firm Capital Fund Law Group, and places great importance on educating the wider industry on the implications of cryptocurrency investment and blockchain technology. He took some time out of his increasingly busy schedule to talk to us about the pressing issues and how lawyers are responding.

What is your legal background and when did you decide to create the Capital Fund Law Group?

I was previously with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, where I worked within their Hedge Fund and Private Equity practice. Then in 2010, I launched my own firm to focus exclusively on the investment fund sector and fund manager sector. To begin with, most of our clients were in the United States and it took a few years to build a global clientele.

How did you first come to deal with cryptocurrencies? What were the perceptions and predictions for cryptocurrencies like then, and how have they evolved since?

We started getting some phone calls about cryptocurrencies around 2013. We initially held off were as we were not ready to jump into the asset class, until 2016 when we launched our first cryptocurrency fund. [In those years] we invested effort in getting up to speed on regulations and drafting some of the initial disclaimer language. It was still very new so getting comfortable from a regulatory perspective took some time.

In terms of wider perceptions – honestly, I didn’t see much perception at all from legal community early on, pretty much nothing was being discussed back then. The shift in perceptions really happened recently in Spring 2017 where there was an explosion of activity in cryptocurrency due to the initial major surge in price of Bitcoin.

Though perceptions around cryptocurrency are rapidly developing, it’s still a very new area. How do you support and advise clients who are interested yet inexperienced?

We emphasise a solid experience in finance. From 2017, we ended up receiving hundreds of phone calls for individuals who wanted to start cryptocurrency funds. We were, and still are, very cautious about representing fund managers who have experience with crypto but don’t have a background in the finance sector. We are more on the side of tempering the swift formation of a cryptocurrency fund and teaching emerging managers how to create the proper structure for a fund. There are a lot of people we deal with who are very savvy with technology and are startup focused, so we advise them to partner with career finance people to create a more diversified skillset.

How have lawyers had to adjust their learning and experience to cryptocurrencies and the blockchain? 

There is much more interest now than there was, particularly in recognising that certain aspect of blockchain technology will change the future of a number of industries. From the investment side, we’ve seen a lot more education pop up – there have been some real strong early adopters on the legal side, who lack seasoned experience in finance, that we end up turning away but that gap is now getting filled by others. In general, there is a continued interest in the legal community in understanding the space and serving it. We, of course, only see a small slice of that in an investment context but in terms of the blockchain universe e.g. smart contracts, coin offering token offerings etc. there is a tremendous need for legal counsel in all those fields.

I think we’re right in the middle of the shift between curiosity and significant resources being allocated to the area. Again, I can only speak for the investment side, but a lot will depend on emergence of institutional investment and Wall Street involvement. I anticipate along with the rest of the cryptocurrency community that there will be major transitioning to a greater focus from these areas.

What impact are cryptocurrencies and the blockchain having now? 

There’s a plethora of opportunities that can be matched with technology across many sectors. On the investment side, there are major opportunities for cryptocurrencies as a stored value, and blockchain is already proving to be a very important aspect of the industry going forward.

What is the future looking like? Will certain cryptocurrencies eventually become a way of life for more institutions and individuals?

There’s the question of whether it will gain mainstream acceptance and whether it will continue as a convenient form of exchanging value. My predictions are: as an investment vehicle, yes, for next few years it will be limited to hedge funds and to high net worth individuals as a major trading instrument, but that can change as soon as there are infrastructures capability such as custodies and exchanges allowing for exchange traded funds (ETFs) – that would provide a strong avenue for retail level participation. Regarding seeing cryptocurrency as a replacement currency for our existing financial structures, that is more of an academic question at this point.

What developments and changes are still required to ensure longevity?

That’s exactly the question I like to be asked! Right now, the question most people have in mind is when and how the problem of custody will be resolved. That is both a technological problem and a legal problem. Getting the technology to a place where we can satisfy the custody requirement to meet financial crime compliance and to satisfy the regulatory requirement of jurisdictions around the world is a big challenge. So, we announced in July at our Cryptocurrency Custody workshop the creation of a working group, an international council of self-regulatory organisations that is going to be co-sponsored by the Stanford Law Blockchain Law and Policy Journal, and the Global Center for Investment Fund Studies, our non-profit research centre. There is a real need for international dialogue. There has been a tremendous interest in London, Dubai, and parts of Asia, and everyone is looking to the U.S. on this – a lot of dialogue is needed on how regulations will be shaped how self-regulatory bodies will play a part in that.

John Lore is a member of the New York State Bar and the Utah State Bar.  Mr. Lore represents fund managers and securities issuers throughout the United States. Capital Fund Law Group advises emerging and established hedge fund managers, with a strong focus on cryptocurrency funds on all aspects of fund formation and ongoing operations.