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You Don’t Need a Law Degree to Transform Legal Operations

Nov. 14, 2022, 9:00 AM

The legal technology industry raised more than $2.5 billion in 2021, and alternative legal service providers are rising in market share, as firms like Deloitte & EY grow their ranks in legal consulting. This growth is leading to new job opportunities.

However, while both people with and without law degrees are driving the changes in legal operations and technology, the resulting job opportunities tend to be restricted only to lawyers despite a large pool of talented professionals without JDs.

Those who know this space understand that you do not have to be an attorney to excel in this domain. Having a legal background can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t be a prerequisite.

Several people changing the practice of law do not have a law degree, including Ulf Zetterberg (Time is Ltd.), Jennifer McCarron (Netflix), and Stephanie Corey (UpLevel Ops) who have all tremendously impacted how most modern lawyers work.

Legal Professionals Can Manage Lawyers

There are several reasons one might want to limit a role in legal transformation or technology to lawyers.

What if the position requires goal and objective setting for legal leadership, manages a team of lawyers, or leads strategic management across the legal department? These skills do not require the active practice of law, but we must address the concern about whether someone without a legal background can manage lawyers who perform legal work.

Take the example of the medical field.

Doctors are specialized licensed professionals within their field, as are lawyers. The medical ecosystem has nurses, technicians, and administrators, among many others. While doctors have highly technical skills and unique domain knowledge, it does not mean they necessarily need to be at the top of each hierarchy in their field.

Consider the role of medical administrator. Doctors are trained to treat and heal people. But if you want to run a hospital, you can’t only study and practice medicine—you also need to study medical administration for years.

State bar associations often restrict legal professionals from holding majority ownership. Under American Bar Association rules, law firms are barred from offering ownership or other investment and revenue-sharing opportunities to legal professionals, resulting in firms where lawyers lead all decision-making despite working in an ecosystem of legal professionals.

The legal restrictions on law firms may have created a culture that makes us think you need to be a lawyer to manage a team of lawyers, but this is not the case. It is worth noting that such restrictions do not exist in all common-law jurisdictions.

For example, the UK began allowing legal professionals investment in 2011.

Training in Cutting-Edge Legal Tech

Legal technology is continuing to transform the delivery of legal services. Legal technology solutions include deep learning algorithms to automate search and data collection, and cloud-based enterprise solutions streamline collaboration between law firms and corporate legal departments.

While lawyers are often end users of this technology, they don’t necessarily have the requisite understanding to implement these systems or teach about them. Law schools are good at training students to spot legal issues and potential claims before signing a contract, but not so much for leading a full technology process of selection, rollout, and change.

The legal profession needs to consider developing practice-based education around technology to better equip attorneys for these “new law” roles. In the meantime, we must acknowledge that some of the most talented professionals in legal innovation and technology have been developing and implementing these systems enterprise-wide at some of the world’s leading organizations--and this space is multidisciplinary.

Do not forget that legal technology does not touch legal alone. A contract management system implementation, for example, often involves sales, procurement, finance, and IT teams.

The need for “JD” after someone’s name is less important than the role’s requirements. Just because a position is within legal pedagogy is not a reason to prefer a lawyer over a subject-matter expert.

The same can be said about law school education as a prerequisite for a role not primarily focused on providing legal advice. Equitable hiring practices should focus on applicants who are best qualified.

We live in an environment where 1,800 legal tech startups have received funding between 2016-2022. The legal technology environment is shifting at breakneck speeds, and legal operations professionals, many without JDs, are already evaluating work and rolling out legal technologies daily. Those skills are critical for modern lawyers to perform their responsibilities at corporations.

The Need for Evolution

While the future of legal innovation remains unclear, it is apparent that law schools must evolve to meet students’ technological needs. At the very least, lawyers and legal professionals must have more collaborative conversations on the broader educational need for legal technology.

Legal operations professionals have a unique opportunity to emphasize the importance of designing and implementing a business solution ecosystem to guide greater efficiency and decision-making. If data and trends tell us anything, law firms and corporate law departments must adapt to achieve better business outcomes, while law schools have to change the way they teach in our modern digital economy.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Memme Onwudiwe is executive vice president of legal and business intelligence at Evisort and a lecturer at Harvard Law School. He helped build Evisort while in law school, and he lectures on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Tom Stephenson is director of legal operations for Credit Karma. He focuses on driving legal operations to run smarter and faster while implementing right-sized technology solutions that provide meaningful data about how teams work.