Diversity in the Law: Can Legal Tech Education Help Move the Needle?

The legal field has come a long way in recent years. However, there are many areas where it lags, primarily in diversity. Following natural sciences and dentistry, the American Bar Association finds lawyers are one of the least diverse groups of professionals.

Progress has been made in recent years to diversify the field. In the United States, racial and ethnic minority groups constitute approximately one-fifth of law school graduates. Women account for upwards of one-third of lawyers.

When it comes to leadership positions at firms, however, female and minority attorneys are far and few between. Racial and ethnic minority groups comprise less than 7% of law firm partners.

Fordham Law Review finds male lawyers are between two and five times more likely to make partner over their female counterparts. Some may argue that women are charged with spending more time away from the office and therefore are less likely to be considered for partner. The research, however, suggests otherwise. Women who do not take time off from the office and work longer hours still have a lesser likelihood of making partner than men.

Paving the Way for a More Diverse Field

While there is still a long way to go to diversify the legal field, a group of law firms and organizations are looking to change the status quo.

In 2017, 30 law firms teamed up with the Diversity Lab, a group that hosts hackathons aimed at developing innovative solutions to increase diversity and inclusion in the law, on a pilot program to further this objective. As part of the program, law firms were tasked with considering women and minorities for at least 30% of candidates for leadership roles, equity partner promotions, and outside hires.

Additionally, there is a growing area within the practice of law that presents a plethora of opportunities for law school and paralegal graduates and as a result, will work to diversify the profession: legal technology.

Because technology is transforming how the law is practiced, firms are recruiting tech-savvy legal professionals to remain competitive. Among growing practice areas for legal professionals, e-discovery and litigation support rank among the top ten, according to the Robert Half 2018 Salary Guide report.

Law firms spanning the nation are taking note of the possibilities that e-discovery and legal tech hold. After promoting their director of litigation support to chief discovery officer, New York City-based law firm Milberg saw the potential growth in this area and spun off the e-discovery department into a separate entity, Meta-e-Discovery.

Other firms also are seeing the opportunity to expand their e-discovery services. Scott Carlson, a partner at Chicago-based Seyfarth Shaw, established the firm’s e-discovery group in 2004. He knew electronic discovery would become increasingly prevalent and developed a team well versed in the intricacies of e-discovery. Nearly 15 years later, the practice has grown from a two-person show to 12. And, they are expanding.

The legal field is ripe with job prospects for tech-savvy legal professionals. The key is making law and paralegal students aware of these opportunities and equipping schools with the technology to drive interest in the classroom.

First Step Portland, Next Step the US

Seven years ago, Janice Hollman aspired to teach a legal technology class with an e-discovery module at Portland Community College. The technology was slowly but surely transforming the legal industry and Janice wanted to arm students with the knowledge to prepare for what the field had in store.

Interest for the class was there. The software needed to teach the class, however, was not.

Janice found her answer when attending Relativity Fest. At the time, Janice was an e-discovery data analyst at Grant Thornton. Looking to bolster her e-discovery skillset, Janice went to Chicago to learn as much as she could about the latest trends in the industry.

While there, Janice had the opportunity to speak to Relativity Founder and CEO Andrew Sieja about her idea.

“I pitched him the idea of bringing e-discovery to the classroom,” Janice said. “Andrew was excited by the idea and that’s where my journey started.”

After emailing Andrew the following week, he connected Janice with the Relativity training team about how to put her plan in action and get Relativity in the classroom. Using her own classroom as the testing grounds, Janice was provided a Relativity workspace to give students hands-on experience in the platform.

“The students kept wanting to do more. It was then I realized that Relativity should do this on a bigger scale,” Janice said.

And a bigger scale it became. Janice joined Relativity in 2014 to establish a program that offered law and paralegal schools e-discovery software and training curriculum free of charge.

The program launched in 2016, signing Chicago-based Roosevelt University as the first school affiliated with Relativity’s Academic Partners Program.

Following Roosevelt University’s lead, other institutions spanning the country have followed suit. In the past three years, the program has expanded to include 91 academic partners in North America, four of which are located in Canada. In 2018, 50 law schools were enrolled in the program and 2,163 paralegal students had access to the technology in the classroom.

When partnering with schools, the main criteria Janice considers is working with instructors interested in discovery and integrating technology into their curriculum. Additionally, schools within the Academic Partners Program are leading the charge in technology innovation and change, including Michigan State University College of Law, Suffolk University Law School, and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. These are schools that not only acknowledge the legal field is changing, but they are also actively preparing their students for this new world.

The Academic Partners Program also provides additional opportunities for students hungry to learn more about trends shaping the e-discovery field. Each year, students interested in legal technology can apply for the Relativity Fest Student Scholarship. At the event, students get to meet and network with other legal professionals and discuss the latest issues impacting the field.

Going Beyond the Classroom

Durham-based North Carolina Central University School of Law, a member of the Relativity Academic Partners Program, is dedicated to supporting a diverse student population. As of October 2018, NCCU had 371 JD students with total minority students comprising 233 of that figure. In the 2017-2018 academic year, NCCU provided scholarships and grants to 53% of their students. Additionally, the school paid full tuition for 12% of their student population that academic year.

“We have recruited populations who historically were not allowed to enter the law profession,” said Nichelle Perry, law library director at NCCU. “At NCCU, we aim to promote diversity and recruit students that are underrepresented in the field.”

NCCU partnered with Relativity on the Academic Partners Program to give their students the opportunity to learn about e-discovery and gain experience using the technology.

“Giving our students exposure to an e-discovery platform has been remarkable,” said Nichelle. “Being a small school, we don’t have access to the same resources as some of the big players out there.”

Faculty and schools participate in the program because they believe it will benefit their students as they embark on their careers in the legal space. For Portland Community College, the proof was in the pudding.

After working in the services industry for several years, Dani Zink wanted a career where she could make a sustainable living and work traditional business hours. She also was looking to work in the legal field. Wanting to do behind the scenes legal work, she decided to pursue her paralegal degree at Portland Community College. Dani opted to take an e-discovery course during her last semester.

“This was one of my last classes and I really didn’t know what e-discovery was before taking it,” Dani remarked.

Getting experience in technology and seeing how it streamlined processes for clients piqued Dani’s interest in the field. Also, Dani’s interest was further driven by Janice’s excitement for the topic.

“Having a teacher believe in what they are teaching you makes a difference,” Dani said.

After earning her paralegal degree, Dani’s e-discovery education did not stop there. She worked at Novitas Data and recently took a position as a review solutions associate at Lighthouse eDiscovery after earning her Relativity Certified Administrator certification in November. She is considering getting her bachelor’s degree in digital forensics.

“E-Discovery has exploded over the last couple of years and people were unaware of the possibilities available to them,” Dani said. “Technology is part of everything we do so having this background in technology opens a lot of doors.”

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