As technology transforms our world, the legal field is being stirred up and rearranged as never before.
But rather than seeing doom and gloom, tech-savvy law graduates view the phenomenon through a lens of opportunity. It may take them out of the daily grind of practicing traditional law and into alternative or nontraditional legal careers.
“This is a golden opportunity for lawyers,” said Richard Hermann, author of the 21st Century Legal Career Series. “If you come to the table with some understanding of technology, along with your law degree . . . you can literally write your own ticket.”
He said technological advances are creating alternative legal careers and transforming the way law is practiced. For example, privacy and cybersecurity issues have given rise to a new legal arena dubbed data protection law. And lawyers who latch onto it are in huge demand.
The number of law grads choosing the alternative legal career path has grown greatly in recent years.
For example, 12.5 percent of the Class of 2017 reported having J.D.-advantage jobs, compared to just 6 percent of the Class of 2001, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). A J.D.-advantage job is one in which a law degree is desirable but not required.
These types of jobs skyrocketed following the 2008 recession and the resulting weakness of the traditional legal job market, NALP reported in 2013.
NALP took a deep look at the Class of 2016, a year when 5,300 people, or 17 percent of employed grads, took J.D.-advantage positions. More than half of them worked in businesses, with the top three most common jobs being in compliance, consulting and management. The top three most common employers were in the banking and finance, accounting and technology, and legal tech industries. The median salary was $60,000.
To learn more about alternative legal careers, we spoke with experts and identified the best tech jobs for entry-level law graduates.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation caused a rush to hire privacy professionals, but companies found that the needed expertise was rare among working professionals. This has been a boon for recent law school grads who studied privacy law, said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. The school offers a privacy law certificate, preparing grads for jobs in corporate privacy departments, where they take responsibility for complying with privacy laws and ensuring that product development teams plan for privacy from the get-go. These grads also find a niche at companies that consult and counsel other businesses about privacy programs.
Work in “legal ops” is trending in the alt-legal-career world.
“Most law students have no clue it exists,” Goldman said.
Legal ops folks help in-house legal departments build technical infrastructure to run the department more efficiently. For example, they may develop a software system to process outside-counsel bills while collecting and analyzing data on billing that can help the department save money.
Legal solutions architect
Law firms and legal aid organizations are also getting into “legal ops,” but they may use different lingo, said legal-tech innovator Dan Linna, a visiting professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. Whether they’re called legal solutions architects, legal engineers or something else entirely, law grads who land these jobs work with lawyers and their clients to understand the people, processes and data involved in a client’s problem. Then they develop software solutions using tools such as Neota Logic’s platform that allows legal professionals to create legal-services apps.
Linna said tech companies such as Neota Logic are hiring law grads who know how to help customers build expert legal systems.
Big data has entered the legal world with major players such as Lex Machina and newer upstarts such as Ravel Law, Premonition and Trellis. They use court, case and judicial data in machine-learning and artificial-intelligence systems to help attorneys predict the outcomes of legal matters. Linna said these companies are hiring data analysts who have knowledge of patent and intellectual property law.
Embarrassing announcements from companies about cybersecurity breaches have become commonplace, and the threat isn’t going away anytime soon. This is creating career opportunities for law school graduates who can help companies handle vulnerabilities, respond to security breaches, address consumer concerns, work with government regulators and ensure that adequate security features are being designed into the companies’ products, said Laura Norris, director of the Tech Edge J.D. Program at Santa Clara Law.
Open-source code compliance
Norris said law grads are finding careers with software companies, using electronic tools to scan new applications for open-source code and ensuring that the company is complying with licenses and distribution rights for that code.
Project manager for technology companies
Large technology companies have big legal departments that often hire law graduates as project managers. These project managers have negotiate, maintain and renew contracts and ensure that the company complies with contract terms, Norris said.
Technology is greatly aiding law graduates who land jobs in compliance. These workers use software to help track things such as supply chain compliance, which ensures that materials used in manufacturing come from legal sources and that vendors adhere to contractual requirements.
“It will get easier to track once blockchain becomes more prevalent,” Norris said, because blockchain technology is so good at tracing the source of things.”
Major law firms hire knowledge managers to develop internal databases, practice-area tool kits and other resources, as well as creating systems to make the information easily accessible to everyone in the firm, Hermann said.
“Firms, over time, develop a tremendous amount of information and knowledge and precedents,” he said.
Corporate clients pass tons of sensitive data to their trusted law firms, but what happens when hackers target the firms’ IT systems? Hermann said law firms have begun hiring risk managers, or data privacy protection officers, to help them assess risks, get insurance for breaches and beef up security in their internal systems. The role requires a high level of technological knowledge, and being a lawyer helps tremendously because they know what they’re dealing with.
Rapid advances in health care technology have given rise to ethical quandaries for hospitals and research institutions. Every day brings new ethical questions. Such was the case in late 2018 when a Chinese scientist was said to have altered the genes of twins in utero with the goal of making them resistant to HIV.
“A good number of bioethicists have law degrees because there are so many laws, regulations and court decisions that come into play,” Hermann said.
Technology transfer officer
Major tech companies have numerous worries in the intellectual property realm, one being how to commercialize their research and development efforts. They hire technology transfer officers, or technology commercialization professionals, to protect their IP innovations on the world stage and to identify prospective buyers or licensees of the technology. These professionals also monitor the licenses and uses.
“Lawyers play a major role and oftentimes don’t have to have a STEM background,” Hermann said. “For example, they don’t have to be patent lawyers. It’s more important that they have marketing capabilities to get the stuff out there and earn some money from it.”
Banking compliance officer
Banks have employed compliance officers for hundreds of years to ensure that their institutions are dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s when it comes to laws and regulations. But technology has changed the job immensely.
“The Dodd-Frank Act hit the financial services agencies with hundreds of new compliance requirements,” Hermann said of the 2010 act that was passed in response the to the financial crisis. “Most of them have some technological component to them. As a consequence, you’ve got this rather staid alternative legal career that has now become infused with much more law, and a heck of a lot more technology.”
IP protection specialist in the fashion industry
Hermann said 3-D printers are disrupting the fashion industry because anyone with a 3-D printer can download a design for an item and print themselves a copy. Litigation involving IP violations is increasing, and fashion companies are hiring IP protection specialists who have knowledge in IP law and 3-D printing technology.
“This wasn’t even a practice area 10 years ago, and now it is,” Hermann said.
Digital asset protection
Digital assets are things such as online bank accounts, intellectual property, business documents, financial information and social media accounts. Many businesses today have much of their value in digital assets, which is why they’re hiring employees who focus solely on protecting digital assets, Hermann said.
Litigation support professional
Large-scale litigation comes with huge volumes of data. Law grads with tech chops can assist attorneys by running databases to wrangle the information, offer support and training in software systems, coordinate with technology vendors and even help run technology in the courtroom, according to the job-search site The Balance Careers.
As more and more business activity is played out online, through email and on social media, the amount of data and evidence left behind seems never-ending. No wonder eDiscovery is growing more complex and expensive every day, giving rise to myriad technology solutions and companies to smooth the waters. As an eDiscovery consultant, a person with a background in law can quickly determine what information is relevant to attorneys and their cases, wrote legal recruiter Harrison Barnes, managing director of BCG Attorney Search, in one of his postings.