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Bringing lawyers along tech-led working ride

10:05am June 15 2018

Intern Louis Bridle (R), with Tim Hartin, says he’s discovered there’s many different ways to pursue a legal career.

In August 2016, Tim Hartin was sitting in a windowless room in Beersheba, Israel, listening to graduates from Ben-Gurion University pitch their start-ups.

For Hartin, it wasn’t for the purposes of making investment decisions, or understanding new technologies.

Westpac’s company secretary was there as a part of a broader study tour, reflecting on what lessons could be learnt from the start-up ecosystem and how these could be applied back into the Compliance, Legal & Secretariat (CLS) division at the bank.
It’s a problem that’s proven difficult to tackle in the broader legal industry.

In traditional professions such as law, innovation is sometimes associated with finding novel ways to bill clients outside the standard six minute increments, or working on methods to encourage more diversity into the upper ranks of private practice. While worthy pursuits, these are hardly the forefront of technological change.
This is surely in part due to the “stickiness” of law itself.

Legal knowledge and understanding is built from years of learning; studying law at university is based on case law that has developed from centuries past, and lawyers at the top of their game are there because of the many hours they have devoted to the dedicated study of particular areas of law.

But for the next generation of compliance professionals, lawyers and company secretaries – those exposed to the “gig” economy and with expectations that continual innovation and a “transformation-as-usual” mindset will be part and parcel of their careers – this disconnect between innovation and the law will be most starkly felt.

At Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, understanding how multinational corporations approach research and development is part of the curriculum. Students are given the opportunity to experience how large corporates approach technology, instead of only learning about it from an academic perspective. The fusion of academia and industry was clear.

People walk along a walkway connecting the Ben-Gurion University to Gav-Yam Negev Advanced Technologies Park. (Getty)

“The core elements of legal training will always remain. However, students now need additional arrows in their quiver. Lawyers will need to have a deep understanding of the tools and technology that will deliver excellent customer service, and desired business outcomes,” Hartin says.

It’s a philosophy echoed by Lesley Hitchens, Dean of the Faculty of Law at University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “Our graduates need to speak the languages of other professions to understand the new ways lawyers need to work,” she says.

In February this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed into the debate, arguing that “too many kids do law,” reflecting oft-cited figures that there is a “glut” of law graduates and not enough legal jobs.

UTS has moved to create a curriculum that produces well-rounded graduates, who can think beyond the legal profession to add value in their careers. “We have a responsibility to students to reflect what’s happening externally,” says Hitchens.

As a result, Westpac and UTS have teamed up to create a first-of-its-kind program of work designed to “future-proof” law graduates and professionals. One part of this is the Law in Technology major, available to later-year UTS law students, where they spend one day a week over a semester undertaking an unpaid internship with the Westpac CLS team, which completes a subject for the students.

“On the one hand students gain a clearer understanding of the complex operational realities of working in a large organisation through the program,” Hartin says of Westpac’s CLS team’s first structured internship program.

“But, on the other hand, they also become change agents at Westpac.”
Yasmin Frost, one of the first two interns to take part, is a case in point: the student, who is studying law and technology degrees, got to work with the Westpac compliance team on the use of artificial intelligence, one of the technologies experts claim could have the biggest affect on all companies.

“My experience at Westpac helped me conceive how the future of the legal profession will be shaped by disruptive technologies; automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, just to name a few. It’s really clear that legal technologies are driving change in the finance industry,” the 20-year old says.

Her experience reflects Hartin’s vision of the future for CLS professionals at Westpac.

“It is expected that lawyers, like any profession, will take advantage of digital advancements, or they risk remaining stuck in the past,” reflects Hartin. “Future careers in law, compliance or corporate governance are going to be multifaceted. Each of us will be required to constantly translate between our core disciplines, business needs, and technology. We must know the right questions to ask and to remagine what’s possible through technology.”

In that sense, bringing in young, naturally more technologically-minded students, is mutually beneficial. Not only do the students start to understand how legal concepts can be applied in practice, but Westpac also benefits from the students’ fresh perspectives and tech know-how to solve old problems.

Louis Bridle, another intern, says the program provides a “holistic” view of the application of legal knowledge.

“It’s difficult to be a law student and not be concerned about employment after graduation,” the 22 year old says. “Doing this internship has made me realise there’s so many different ways to pursue a legal career.

“I’ve learnt how each issue that comes to the CLS team is not strictly legal – you’re encouraged to think from different perspectives to find an outcome that works for the business, and ultimately, the customer.”  

Westpac’s next interns start in the Spring semester.

Vicki joined Westpac's corporate affairs team in 2016 and is a Media Relations Manager. She developed a love of media working for a renowned international fashion editor in London, after spending a couple of years practicing as a lawyer in Sydney and London.

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