We need to better equip the next generation for the legal sector of the future


Dr Andrew James, Professor of Innovation Management & Policy at Alliance Manchester Business School and academic lead for the Manchester Law & Technology Initiative, argues it’s vital we keep abreast of the growing impact of technology in the legal sector and equip graduates with the skills they need to navigate the sector both now and in the future. 

Like many other industries, the legal sector is changing. We are no stranger to this concept, particularly as technological advancements progress rapidly and impact organisations of all sizes – both in terms of the way they operate and the challenges they have navigate.

While legal services firms have been slower to adopt new technologies than their financial counterparts, for example, we have seen a rapid increase in the awareness of how important technology is to the profession. The legal industry has long been accused of failing to adapt to the changing marketplace but in today’s digital age, we are starting to see increased recognition of the role technology has to play. With the fully digital divorce application launched to the public in May this year and news of the Law Society launching a lawtech incubator in 2018 – an initiative designed to make it easier for law firms to support legal tech providers – we are seeing evidence of the sector embracing technology to improve processes.

Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS), the School of Law and the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester came together last year to launch the Manchester Law & Technology Initiative, the first industry-academic research collaboration of its type in the UK. The Initiative brings together legal services firms with academics to develop research and teaching centered on innovation and the application of new technologies in the legal services sector.

Given the pace of change over the last 12 months in particular, the next five years will be key when it comes to adopting these new technologies. Forbes reported that 2018 set a record 713 per cent growth in investment in legal tech startups. Ensuring the next generation is equipped to take up roles in these firms is paramount – that’s why the Legal & Technology Initiative was set up and it will help to address three main issues.

Recognising the need for new skills

Traditionally, we have seen people in the legal profession – and across a variety of industries – operate in silos. Today it’s important for us to have access to lawyers who are technically literate, and to software engineers who understand the legal landscape. And while the legal firms we work with tell us that the sector can be a guarded one, pooling resources can help to break down these barriers, enable universities and businesses to understand where the gaps are and foster the skills that the sector lacks.

Chris Ronan, CEO of St John’s Buildings Barristers’ Chambers and one of the partners in the Initiative, argues that we not only need to acknowledge the skills the sector is missing but also understand exactly what those skills are and how they fit in across the whole supply chain: “Not only is there a skills gap but there’s a huge knowledge gap in terms of what’s actually going on in the legal profession. Until recently, there were only two law schools that included technology as part of their training and electives. There’s so much being done around AI products, yet student bodies aren’t aware of who’s doing what and exactly what innovations are taking place. By having a more integrated approach with industry and the academic world, firms, researchers and students can fully understand the bigger picture and recognise what skills are missing and how they fit into this landscape.

“And collaboration is key to achieving this. The bar is the ultimate referral profession – barristers receive work from solicitors at varying stages within the life span of a case. If the client is tech literate and solicitors are adopting tech to enhance their service, a barrister who sits in the middle of the supply chain being out of touch from a technological perspective will significantly hinder progress and impact on client delivery. Collaboration is critical in avoiding this and in understanding what skills we need to better enhance our offering, both within the supply chain and to our client base.”

Shifting mindsets

As well as acknowledging the new skills requirement, facilitating the adoption of new technologies among professionals is also a challenge, which the Initiative strives to address. Understanding how to deal with the behaviours within a firm that might impede the adoption of new technologies is the first step in challenging them – and finding ways to best communicate the benefit of these technological tools.

Intapp, the industry cloud for professional and financial services, conducted a survey last year that showed 46 per cent of UK lawyers felt that the technology they use every day doesn’t fully meet their needs. With outdated technology systems in place, it’s unsurprising to see how attitudes towards technology are hostile.

Julia Kingston-Davies, Group Chief Operating Officer at The Jackson Lees Group, said: “The legal industry is confronted with a huge challenge when it comes to implementing change, but we’ve seen a significant cultural shift in the last few years. Today, firms like us are recognising that the way people do things needs to change to adapt to our tech-literate clients and surroundings. In the past, lawyers were trained in a very traditional way, meaning their thinking could be very regimented too. But it’s about bringing people on the journey with you, rather than imposing change. In this respect, the collaboration with Alliance Manchester Business School and other firms in the industry will help to change the way we consider technology – making it a part of the process as opposed to a standalone concept – something we will be able to cascade to the industry at large.”

Creating technology that’s fit-for-purpose

With some legal professionals finding current tech processes too complex and hindering rather than boosting efficiencies, an important part of the Initiative involves working on and adapting the new technologies themselves. The Manchester Legal & Technology Initiative is a collaboration between industry and academia. We’re drawing on expertise from across the University to develop areas such as machine learning, AI and data analytics – all of which are hugely important if we are to propel the legal industry forwards.

Stuart Whittle, Director of Innovation and Business Services at law firm Weightmans, said: “We are proud of the developments we have made in the innovation sphere, creating an artificial intelligence system capable of legal reasoning, a chat bot for internal communication and creating a number of intuitive applications designed to make our work quicker and more cost effective.

“This work would be impossible without collaboration with digital specialists, underpinned by academic precision – our innovation strategy is grounded in academic theory, which is why it is so important for us to continue to invest in initiatives such as the Manchester Law & Technology Alliance. This blend of expertise and insight has enabled us to deliver new ways of working which will not just equip us for the future of legal services but allow us to shape it.”

But ultimately, the initiative is in place to enhance the student experience and provide the industry with workplace-ready graduates. We must engage with firms to equip future legal professionals with both academic and industry expertise so they can develop the skill sets that make them competitive in the labour market.


Dr Andrew James

Role: Senior Lecturer

Email: andrew.james@manchester.ac.uk


Andrew James is a Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Policy and Management and a member of the Manchester Institute of Innovation and Research at MBS. His research and teaching interests focus on corporate technology strategy, innovation management and science and technology policy, as well as business strategy. He has engaged in research and consultancy with companies from a diverse range of sectors including chemicals, industrial electronics and pharmaceuticals but his particular focus is on the industrial and technological dynamics of the defence, security and aerospace sectors.



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