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Tech-Savvy Attorneys in Heavy Demand Amid Emerging Tech

Feb. 22, 2018, 2:20 PM

•Clients involved in blockchain, AI, cybersecurity put pressure on firms’ recruiting

•States, bar associations revise standards to include tech knowledge

Memo to lawyers: free your inner computer nerd if you want to represent today’s clients.

Take Patrick Berarducci, a lawyer whose resume also includes a background in computer science and software engineering. He was quickly snatched up by the blockchain company ConsenSys to make sure the developing technology complies with existing laws and regulations.

“There’s a real shortage” of lawyers like him, John Wolpert, ConsenSys’ product executive, told Bloomberg Law. “We need a lot more code-y lawyers, as I say.”

Emerging and fast-evolving technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, have law firms scrambling for legal talent that understands technology. Law firms are scouring for attorneys with expertise in computer science or cryptography to advise corporate and government clients implementing technology and navigate nascent case law in these areas, executives and attorneys told Bloomberg Law.

Law firms trailing in tech know-how risk losing business from all sectors of the economy, attorneys told Bloomberg Law. More states, in their attorney competence standards, are telling firms to boost their lawyers’ tech expertise, or run the risk of possible sanctions or penalties.

“Courts aren’t being patient with these issues,” Robert Ambrogi, who specializes in media and technology at the Law Office of Robert J. Ambrogi, told Bloomberg Law. “There are already clients who have been hurt by their own lawyers’ incompetence in technology.”

A lack of tech know-how by attorneys also can be “disastrous” for clients in complex situations, like a data breach, David Navetta, partner in Cooley LLP’s privacy and technology practices, told Bloomberg Law.

Tech Whisperers Wanted

The number of law firms recruiting legal students with a technical background during the early recruiting process nearly doubled last year compared to 2016, according to the National Association for Law Placement, which tracks legal hiring.

The supply of lawyers who match such qualifications is still low, and the demand has not gone unnoticed by lawyers and prospective law students.

“More and more we’re seeing hybrid lawyers with technical background that have a law degree,” Navetta told Bloomberg Law.

Law firm hunger for tech-talent is not solely about trying to drum up cutting-edge clients. Greater use of emerging technology across large enterprises in traditional industries is also driving the demand, Navetta said. Case law can’t always keep pace, forcing attorneys to be creative in assessing and mitigating new legal risks.

“These new technologies tend to warp the law very quickly,” he said.

In the course of complex litigation, attorneys will face jury members and judges who aren’t in-the-know about tech. Knowing technology can help translate complex concepts more convincingly to such audiences, Ian Ballon, co-chair of Greenberg Traurig LLP’s intellectual property and technology group, told Bloomberg Law.

“If you don’t really understand what’s happening under the hood, you’re going to miss some important legal arguments,” Ballon told Bloomberg Law.

Risks of Ludditism

Regulatory and industry groups are paying attention to the trend. Since 2012, at least 28 states have adopted a tech competency standard, set by the American Bar Association, that requires lawyers to keep abreast of the risks and benefits of technology relevant to their practice, according to a data analysis by Ambrogi.

Starting in 2017, Florida began requiring attorneys in the state to obtain continuing education credits in technology-related courses.

Recent ethics guidelines, including one from the ABA in May 2017, and another from the California bar in 2015, also have clarified attorney’s technological responsibilities in protecting confidential client information and handling electronically stored data.

This means lawyers need to understand cyber-risks, encryption, and even basic social media skills that can be relevant during discovery, Ambrogi said.

“In order to do that these days, you really have to have a more sophisticated understanding of technology, more than I think a lot of lawyers do,” he said.

A disgruntled client whose trade secrets or personal information was mishandled by his or her lawyer could file a complaint with a state bar association, Ambrogi said. It’s possible the lawyer could ultimately lose his or her license to practice, he said.

Upping Education

Law schools will play a major role in preparing students for the evolving industry, Aaron Wright, professor at the Cardozo School of Law and chairman of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance legal working group, told Bloomberg Law.

Cardozo provides access to computer programming groups and hands-on practice with new technology, such as blockchain. A slew of other universities have also launched tech-centric courses for law students. Cornell University offers a one-year Master of Laws in law, technology and entrepreneurship. Harvard Law School offers a course in programming for lawyers.

A pilot project launched by Michigan State University College of Law professor Daniel Linna is developing indexes to quantify how law firms and law schools are implementing new technologies and curricula.

To be sure, lawyers typically don’t need to be master coders to effectively counsel clients in technology. And in some cases, the legal industry can apply lessons learned from older iterations of evolving technology, Ballon said. Artificial intelligence, for example, involves some of the same legal questions that intelligent agent software generated in past decades, Ballon said.

Still, even a basic understanding of code and how technologies work are crucial when assessing many clients’ risks and counseling them, Wright said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu