Like many people, I went to law school, passed a bar exam, but then found myself not actually practicing within the field that I had spent so much time and money to be trained. I had taken stock of my options, researched, and soul-searched before jumping into one of the top alternative job markets for those with legal backgrounds: the world of legaltech.
While the tradition of legal research platforms and tools is extensive, there’s been a recent boom in technology companies targeting a broader swath of legal tasks and problems. These kinds of tools can significantly improve the practitioner experience, and they are popping up at an unprecedented rate. As such, there has never been a more exciting time for those lawyers, law students, or legal dilettantes interested in technology and business to consider a career contributing to the development of next-generation legaltech.
That said, there are very real differences between the practitioner environment and the landscape one encounters in the legaltech space. If you’re considering the field, here are three things I wish I had known before making the leap into legaltech:
Don’t leave your practical experience behind
There is often a temptation — when interviewing or positioning yourself to depart the traditional legal world — to emphasize the generalizable skills and bona fides that you get from practicing the law. Things like negotiation proficiency, analytical acumen, and rock-solid presentation skills are commonly cited as being the non-specialized benefits of legal training. And, by all means, you should reference and play up those characteristics. That does not mean, however, that you should minimize the tangible fruits of your practical legal experience. In many cases, it is this very experience that makes you particularly valuable to a legal tech startup or even a more established player. Remember: these companies are often founded or led by people with either computer science or business backgrounds. They will have incredible insight into strategy, project management, and development approaches; what they will lack is actionable insight into how lawyers work and what problems they commonly face. This is not trivial, often leading companies to pay external consultants to provide this very input to inform product development efforts. Play up your insight into lawyer workflows, even if you are applying for a position without obvious product development influence. Simply having you on the team as a customer expert is a huge advantage for them and a differentiator for you.
Don’t be afraid to voice an outlandish position
Startup and legaltech culture is as free flowing and diverse as you might expect. Opinions are shared openly to a degree that might be shocking to those more accustomed to white shoe firm life and its conservative decorum. Don’t be afraid to voice your thoughts, no matter how alien that might initially feel, especially when commenting on an area that you don’t feel entirely well versed. Trust me when I say that your new peers will not hesitate to provide their thoughts on whatever you are working on. And this isn’t just a matter of being comfortable in your new environs. Startups are — perhaps more than any other types of business — concerned with ensuring that their culture has a consistent “feel” and ethos. Transitioning attorneys can sometimes be viewed as more difficult fits into the social mix. Ensuring you are jumping in with appropriate gusto can help allay any such concerns, and — better yet — will help you feel engaged with your new company and its products.
Developers are your friends and valued allies, not an alien species
This is perhaps the most crucial item on this list. As someone who followed a very conventional social sciences and legal educational path, I always found the world of computer science very foreign and often intimidating. These are people with an extremely different skill set and experience, bringing a way of thinking that I did not inherently grasp or empathize with. Yet, I quickly learned that understanding developers was related to my success, to a degree that I didn’t anticipate. More than just being close partners in the product development process, they are the engine that converts legal concepts into reality. Learning how developers work, prioritize, and tackle a problem helped me to communicate more effectively, get more done, and help the features I care most about retain their momentum. To sweeten the deal, I’ve found that devs are typically extremely intelligent people with interesting things to say about pretty much everything. In short, spend the time to get to know the developers you are working with: it will be well worth it.
Hopefully, this list is in no way daunting. Though these are all things that I wish I had known in advance, I cottoned to them pretty quickly after joining a legal tech company. Still, I hope that these tips help illustrate what the shift from practicing attorney to legal tech contributor might entail. For me personally, it has been an exciting and rewarding adventure — even if I did have to (slowly) learn what a pull request and rebasing entailed.