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Firms kick off summer associate programs integrating innovation, legal tech

4 minute read

REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

(Reuters) - As Big Law’s next generation of lawyers settle into summer associate programs this week, masks and Zoom meetings won’t be the only sign of the times.

Some of them will encounter something alien to summer programs of the past: a focus on legal innovation and technology.

"The reality is, law students who are now entering legal practice as summer associates are exactly the ones who will be affected during the course of their careers, inevitably, by the changing practice of law, by technology augmentation in practice of law," said Nicola Shaver, managing director of innovation and knowledge at Los Angeles-based global firm Paul Hastings.

This is the second summer that Paul Hastings is hosting its LegalTech University, a multi-week curriculum for all U.S. summer associates. Topics include the "changing commercial forces in the legal industry," the ABA Model Rule 1.1 related to technology competency, and artificial intelligence and automation in the practice of law, Shaver said.

Lawyers need to understand how to identify opportunities to use technology and streamline processes, she said. "That's the mindset we want. And it should be embedded in associates and lawyers very early on."

Other firms offer targeted programs for a subset of their summer associates. Reed Smith in 2018 launched a legal technology summer associate program with a modified interview track that includes a tech component. Participants spend about 70% of their time on traditional summer associate legal work and the remaining portion on legal technology projects, said Reed Smith chief technology officer Lucy Dillon.

With some of those summers later returning to the firm as associates, the legal tech training is "beginning to become embedded in our system," Dillon said.

Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith has one person starting this week in the program. The firm's long-term goal is that the initiative continues and there will eventually be more partners who have the dual legal and technology skills.

"The best possible outcome is that we don't even need to recruit people like this anymore, because it's just the way everyone works," Dillon said. There is a need at the moment to be deliberate with the effort, though, "because it's not part of the way people think," she said.

The summer programs fit a broader trend of technology and innovation making their way into legal training and education in both law schools and law firms.

The efforts aren't just aimed at aspiring lawyers or early career attorneys. Hofstra University's law school last month launched a six-week legal tech skills certificate for lawyers, paralegals and legal support personnel. Law firms have touted a range of internal innovation and technology initiatives, responding in part to client demands and increased competition from alternative providers.

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe says associates at the firm can spend 50 hours of bonus-eligible time on innovation projects. Dechert recently partnered with design company Ideo to offer an innovation program to lawyers and professionals in the firm.

Law firms are also partnering with technology companies to offer new products to be used internally and for clients. That's happening in some of the summer associate programs, too. Paul Hastings last year worked with Berlin-based no-code service automation company Bryter as part of its summer program.

At Palo Alto-based Wilson Sonsini, summer associates have the opportunity to create tools to automate workflow. Now in its third year, the firm’s “Build-A-Bot” initiative is one option for summer associates to fulfill a skills requirement, according to Elizabeth Pond, who leads the firm’s law school recruiting efforts. Summer associates who participate in the program this year will work with Finnish no-code document automation company Contract Mill Oy.

Build-a-Bot, the firm’s attorney recruiting director Cherie Beffa said, “really reflects the firm’s commitment to innovation and in giving our summer associates at this entry level that kind of hands-on and technological innovation experience that they need to be successful later.”

Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com

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