10 things students can do to prepare themselves for the legal landscape of the future

The legal landscape of the future will be dynamic, fast paced and constantly changing. This will present many opportunities for future lawyers, particularly those who seek to equip themselves with the relevant skills, knowledge and experience to exploit them.

Here are 10 things that students can do to prepare themselves for the legal landscape of the future.

1. Technology. Do all you can to learn about the technology used by law firms and the new artificial intelligence technologies that are emerging which have potential to change legal practice. Being highly tech literate will give you a professional edge and make you invaluable to your firm.

2. Data security. Be aware of the security and privacy of data, and the use we can make of metadata (and use Google to find out what this term means if you don’t know). As information is online, global and democratised, understanding security and data management risks will be critical. But learning to use, or even to exploit the (meta) data will be beneficial.

3. Legal knowledge. Recognise that at the best law firms or chambers, technical legal excellence will be expected as a minimum. All of the candidates that they choose to interview are likely to have strong exam results and be academically very able.

What will differentiate you from the competition is your ability to understand legal work from the perspective of your client; what motivates them, the drivers behind their decision-making and so on. Anything you can do to improve your understanding of the commercial environment in which they operate will ultimately make you a better lawyer and trusted adviser.

4. Business. Understand that a law firm is a business. Research how law firms are structured, how they charge for the legal work that they do and how they make money. Don’t assume that they are only interested in you for your legal ability. Law firms are businesses too and they are interested in candidates who are commercial and entrepreneurial.

Learn about sales and how people think about buying legal services. It’s not about telling clients how clever you are, it’s about listening to their needs

5. Legal sectors. Do what you can to improve your knowledge and understanding of the sectors in which law firms operate. Increasingly, solicitors’ firms arrange their lawyers by sector rather than by practice area.

For example, firms might group together teams who work in oil and gas or healthcare or aviation, rather than a debt finance or dispute resolution group.

As well as vacation schemes within firms, research those sectors in which your preferred law firms operate and consider applying for vacation schemes in those industries. Time spent in a bank or an insurance company is likely to be of interest to firms who specialise in those areas.

6. Wider expertise. Similarly, if your first degree is in a subject other than law or if you have previously worked in another sector, you are likely to be of interest to many law firms. GDL students with experience of technical areas such as engineering, technology and sciences etc. are well advised to target firms practising in those areas.

7. For aspiring barristers, ensure that you truly understand the nature of practice at the Bar. Universities provide a wealth of information about training contracts and firms but information about the realities or practising as a barrister can be harder to come by. If, when you interview with a set of chambers you don’t demonstrate an appreciation of the reality of what they do, it will not go down well.

The most useful way to get this knowledge is through work experience. If you have not managed at least one relevant mini-pupillage before seeking pupillage itself, there will be concern that you do not sufficiently appreciate what you are taking on, plus that experience will enable you to talk about real specific examples of practice that you have seen and relate these to your ambitions.

Ask about how one deals with the barrister/clerk relationship, how billing works, how one handles tax, VAT and banking and to what extent the members of chambers work in teams as well as sole practitioners. This awareness, demonstrated in an interview will be impressive.

8. Changes in the profession. Law is currently going through a period of enormous regulatory change. The BSB (Bar Standards Board) and the SRA (Solicitors Regulatory Authority) are both currently reviewing the process by which entrants to the profession qualify as well as looking at substantial reforms to the regulation of the professions post-qualification. Make sure you are broadly aware of the changing regulatory landscape and can discuss it during an interview if asked.

9. Keep an open mind on your career. The way in which lawyers work within law firms is changing rapidly. As well as the rise of AI technology, the workplace is increasingly made up of a wider range of legal professionals than you may have encountered before. Firms are employing a growing number or strategists, legal project managers, legal technologists, specialist paralegals and apprentices among others.

Be aware that your legal career may take you in more directions than simply choosing between the Bar and qualifying as a solicitor. Don’t discount other types of legal careers. Don’t forget to explore opportunities in-house as well as in private practice. You could find yourself undertaking a training contract or pupillage within a multinational, at a television company, in local government or in a tech giant.

10. Brexit will in due course bring about profound changes in English law and to the study of law. Initially, the Government intends to enact all current EU Law into English law on the day the UK leaves the European Union, but repeal the European Communities Act 1972 so that new EU Law ceases to apply to the UK.

It is likely however that the terms on which the UK leaves the European Union will require practising lawyers in the UK to continue to have a good working knowledge of key elements of EU law and subjects relevant to their area of practice.

Make sure that you understand (as far as possible) the legal implications of Brexit and current thinking on the impact on specific areas of law, for example competition, employment etc. During interviews use this knowledge to demonstrate your depth of understanding and grasp on potential outcomes and the opportunities that these may create.

Lawyers of the future will need to be more flexible and more resilient than ever before to cope with the changing legal landscape. The lawyer who is able to thrive in a period of rapid change can take advantage of more opportunities than simply progressing from trainee to associate to partner. Brush up on your networking skills and take every advantage to interact with different types of legal professionals.

Professor Andrea Nollent is Vice-Chancellor and CEO at The University of Law

Thanks for contributions go to my University of Law colleagues, Morette Jackson, David Barnes, Jason O’Malley, Becky Huxley-Binns, Tom MacDonald and to Nick West, Chief Strategy Officer, Mishcon de Reya and Visiting Professor at the University of Law who contributed to the advice on technology.

Kerry Westland: The lawyer of the future and her unique training contract