January/February 2019

Career Steps

Transitioning to a Legal Technology Career

Wendy L. Werner

While there may be some surprise that, in the years since the Great Recession, the delivery of legal services may not have changed as radically as was either predicted or anticipated, one thing we can certainly agree on is that the technology accompanying the delivery of legal services has advanced significantly. With the adoption of new arenas of legal technology and concerns about ethics and cybersecurity have come a new set of career options, both for people working in law firms and for the businesses who help law firms function.

Things that we are observing in junior lawyers may influence the ways in which legal services are delivered in the future. Junior lawyers are less interested in having a career measured in six-minute increments for the next 30 years; they’re looking for greater flexibility in how they work, and they are interested in having engaging and substantive work early in their careers. In addition they are less tied to the old trope of “we have always done it this way” and, in many cases, they believe that this mentality is holding the legal profession back from being more innovative and creative.

While they may not want to work in the same way as the senior members of their firms, this does not mean that they lack a robust work ethic. They are simply more interested in knowing that their labors will contribute to moving projects forward quickly. Rather than considering working solely as practicing lawyers billing by the hour, such a mentality could go to work on behalf of the law in the technology arena.

Internal to a Firm

How many firms had a Legal Technology department 15 years ago? While such departments may not be commonplace in firms of all sizes, they are more prevalent now, and they offer some attorneys the chance to get in on the ground floor of a practice area. Many lawyers who transition to working in legal technology do so because they have been the “go-to” person in their firms for technology issues and find themselves becoming more interested in technology than the strict practice of law.

In recent years many corporations are short-listing law firms to perform their external legal work. Technology is a growing consideration for companies creating law firm panel consolidation for providers. These companies consider that external providers will be tech-savvy and innovative when it comes to providing them with legal services, and many requests for proposals and panel applications include areas where firms must provide evidence of their technological competence. If you become the go-to person who can respond to these technological issues, you will prove invaluable to your law firm.

One of the ways in which an interest in technology careers may be sparked is by lawyers who serve on their firm’s legal technology committees. If you think you have a growing interest in technology, consider dipping your toe in the water by serving in that capacity at your firm. If you don’t have a legal tech committee, start one, even if you are working in a small firm. There are a huge variety of issues and needs that you should be addressing in a more formal way.

In-House

Fields including entertainment, gaming, software and hardware development; technology start-ups moving to a more advanced level; and industries steeped in needs for security are looking to hire attorneys with both an interest and experience in technology. A recent ad for an Amazon attorney asked for this: “Looking for a talented Corporate Counsel attorney to provide legal advice and counseling on technology transactions, product counseling, and regulatory compliance matters for its Ring business.” Anyone seeking such a position should anticipate that the roles and responsibilities would change rapidly over time, and the work that the successful candidate might be doing would change radically over time.

Design and Emerging Practice Areas

Law firm web design tends to need far more attention than it’s getting. While most very large firms have sophisticated websites, smaller firms and solo practitioners are less likely to have well-developed sites. Web design and presentation is an area that allows smaller firms to compete head-to-head with many of their larger counterparts. Many smaller firms have no personnel tasked with handling web design, and as a result their site designs and implementation, not to mention search engine optimization results, suffer. A lawyer who became skilled at knowing and implementing WordPress design could be highly successful in creating well-designed sites for lawyers and continue to serve their needs through the updating process for years to come.

There are lots of practice areas to explore that absolutely require lawyers with experience and interest in these areas, including the following:

  • Experience in financial technology, financial services regulation, financial institutional data privacy, consumer protection and payments law.
  • Experience with the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Health-care regulation and compliance, or health information generally.
  • Privacy, ethics and cybersecurity.
  • E-commerce, licensing and technology transfer.
  • Things we haven’t even thought of yet.

Making the Transition

If you have been employed in a more traditional position as a practicing lawyer, there are a number of considerations to make before moving into a technology role. If you have been billing hours in a firm and hope to move to a nonbillable role, you will need to make a case for how you will work and be paid for your services. Most law firms tend to consider only billing attorneys as profit centers and anyone in a staff role as a cost center. You must be able to make the case for how your technology role saves the firm money; places it in a more tenable position in terms of security, confidentiality or ethics; or makes it easier to bill and collect money from clients.

If you are serving the needs of lawyers as an external provider, you will also have to find compelling reasons to justify your charges. Lawyers are not particularly attuned to web communication, and their sites suffer as a result. More than just providing better design, if you are in that business, you will need to demonstrate to your prospective client the ways in which you can help them present a better business face to their current or prospective clients. As an attorney you will have far more credibility in doing so than your nonattorney counterparts.

Lawyers may sometimes be wary of people who leave the practice of law, perhaps hiding a desire they may have themselves to change their careers or because they genuinely love the practice and can’t imagine how someone would want to do something else with their degree. How you communicate this change will help ease their fears and demonstrate the ways in which your similar past makes you the best person to provide new services inside the firm or as an entrepreneur.

A way to earn kudos in making a transition inside or outside of your firm is developing a knowledge base that your potential client doesn’t have. If you have an expertise that is unique, cost saving or income producing, you are more likely to find yourself in a safe and valued position. If you leave a traditional law firm for a position as a service provider, do not assume that you will not still find yourself in a similarly competitive environment. Legal technology is changing rapidly and is highly competitive. While your position at a law firm may have been steeped in precedent, that isn’t likely to be the case in legal technology. It is a forward-facing rather than backward-facing field.

Where to Find Jobs

It was once the case that when people were looking for law firms, they would open a hardcover Martindale-Hubbell directory. Times have changed, and now it’s easier to find legal technology companies. Stanford has provided, if not an exhaustive list, certainly a significant one that currently includes 1,075 companies in legal technology at techindex.law.stanford.edu/. This list, available alphabetically and by work area, is a great place to learn about a wide variety of organizations involved in legal tech. Consider it as an early stage resource for gaining broad knowledge about the field.

In-Person Opportunities

A great place to attend CLE programs, see providers and meet the people shaping the present and future is at the ABA TECHSHOW, which will be held in Chicago from Feb. 27 to March 2. The cost for attending is close to half of what other large legal technology conferences charge, and the number of applications for speaking engagements is vast. As a result the quality of programs is outstanding. There are great opportunities to meet speakers and visit exhibitors, and the ABA has an on-site bookstore that features most of its law practice books, especially those that emphasize technology.

Probably the largest legal technology conference is Legal Tech NY. ILTACON, held annually as the conference of its parent organization, ILTA, the International Legal Technology Association, also holds a large meeting in August that provides a broad array of legal vendors. All provide excellent opportunities for networking as well as meeting directly with providers, and they include CLE and other learning-through programs, keynotes and hands-on activities. Attendance indicates to the field that you are serious about a career in legal technology. If you are unable to attend the conferences, or as you decide where to invest your attendance dollars, check the exhibitor lists and learn who will attend. These are great opportunities to talk directly to legal technology employers, who are, in the end, the targets for your next career.

Wendy L. Werner

Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She was the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s (LP) Law Career Paths Task Force and is currently the co-chair of the LP Book Publishing Board. Email her.

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