How to Break into Legal Tech as a Law Student

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My name is Jonathan Petts, and I’m a co-founder at Upsolve. We’re a legal tech nonprofit that helps low-income families file for bankruptcy for free through the first TurboTax for bankruptcy. When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2006, there weren’t many opportunities at the intersection of law and technology. For that reason, I joined a Big Law firm in New York City before leaving to start Upsolve. Today, hundreds of legal tech startups are democratizing the law for consumers and businesses.

When I was in law school, I wish someone had told me how I could best prepare myself for a career in legal tech, and how I could maximize my chances of finding a compelling opportunity in this space. That’s why I set out to write this guide.

  1. What is legal tech?

  2. Why consider a career in legal tech?

  3. What types of roles are available?

  4. What can I do outside of class to build my skills?

  5. How can I find legal tech job openings?

  6. What should I do if I want to start my own legal tech company?

  7. What are some resources that will be helpful?

  8. Sample of Legal Tech Companies

The most common definition of legal tech is any company that uses technology to make legal services more affordable. The end user of the software can be consumers, businesses, or attorneys. Some of the first legal tech companies produced products and websites to help lawyers market themselves, such as FindLaw. Another early vertical in legal tech was e-discovery. Today, legal tech companies sell a number of products to various customers. Here’s a representative sample of different target markets.

For Consumers:

For Businesses:

For Lawyers and In-house Counsel

There is also a whole set of exciting job opportunities available at non-legal tech companies, such as Uber and Airbnb, for people with legal backgrounds, particularly around navigating regulatory uncertainty. While this guide isn’t directed towards people seeking those roles, law students with their eyes set on traditional Silicon Valley companies may still find our thoughts on legal tech useful.

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One main reason to consider a career in legal tech is that it offers you an opportunity to have a massive impact on the world. While a lawyer may be able to help one client or business at a time, software allows you to scale your reach. If you embed your legal knowledge in your product, there’s no limit to the number of people that you can serve. For example, the attorney who embedded her knowledge in LegalZoom’s business incorporation software arguably helped more businesses incorporate in the United State than any single business lawyer by several orders of magnitude.

Many public service-oriented lawyers choose to go into policy and impact litigation rather than direct services because it gives them the chance to scale their personal impact on the world. If you’re able to make a policy change, then overnight you can often improve the lives of people at a different scale than with direct service work. Legal technology, if directed at the right communities, may also have a similar result. Public policy and legal tech software can both scale to help people beyond any single attorney-client relationship.

A second reason to consider a career in legal tech is because it’s where employment opportunities are bound to increase in coming years. In 2018, venture capitalists invested over $1 billion into legal tech startups. This means more companies will be hiring in the space. While many of those roles will go to software engineers, there are dozens of job titles where having a background in the law differentiates someone as a candidate. For example, selling software to law firms can be a lot easier when you have the credibility of having a law degree yourself. Building and designing software products in the legal industry can also be easier when you’ve had personal experience with existing manual processes as a lawyer.

A third reason to consider a career in legal tech is that it allows you to use skills and solve problems that are not applicable to traditional legal careers. If you’re a creative person who is most excited about building new things and scaling them, you’re more likely to find a job that will let you do that in the technology industry than anywhere else. Traditional law firms cannot attract non-attorney capital, which often limits their ability to grow at the same pace as technology companies. Similarly, traditional law firms, by and large, continue to bill clients for their time rather than based on outcomes. As a result, they don’t face the same pressure to innovate and build creative products and processes in the same way that technology companies face.

Along with the impact, job availability, and room for creativity and innovation in legal tech, a number of additional reasons make the industry a compelling choice. They include less hierarchy than traditional legal environments and potentially better lifestyles.

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Like any tech startup, legal tech companies hire software engineers, designers, and product managers to build their products and marketers, business development people, and salespeople to sell them. Someone may ask, why do I need to go to law school if I’m going to do a job that doesn’t require a law degree to do it? My answer: having subject matter expertise and the credibility of a law degree allow law students to perform better in the traditional functional roles of technology companies.

For example, Free Will and Willing are both companies that help people make their own wills with software. They both rely on attorneys with domain expertise to help them design and build their products. It’s hard to imagine a company that automates wills with software would ever be successful if they didn’t have regular access to someone who could help them embed the domain knowledge into their product.

Similarly, Legal Server, a company that sells customer relationship management (CRM) software to legal service providers, has former legal aid attorneys on its executive team. Given this domain expertise at its senior level, Legal Server can better understand the needs of its customers and turn those insights into product innovations. At Upsolve, we only recruit attorneys to write our bankruptcy content because bankruptcy is a highly technical subject, and we’ve found it very hard for non-attorneys to write quality content for our users. We also have attorneys review the bankruptcy forms that our software generates before we give the forms to our user to file on their own with the court.

Founders and hiring managers, particularly in early stage teams, place a great deal of emphasis on culture fit and belief in the company’s mission. Having spent time in law school also helps people seeking roles in legal tech demonstrate a commitment to the mission and industry they’re hoping to transform. It’s much easier to believe that a lawyer who wants to sell software that makes e-discovery easier cares about the mission of the e-discovery company than a non-lawyer who just learned the concept of discovery in litigation last week. Demonstrated commitment to the mission is an important signal that someone will stay loyal to their employer when things get rough.

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What can I do outside of class to build my knowledge and skills?

The obvious steps to prepare yourself for a job in legal tech are to get an internship and try launching your own project in the space. There’s no better preparation than jumping right into the work and learning by doing. At the end of this guide, we have a list of companies that you may want to consider, based on your particular interests. A few programs like the A2J Tech Fellowship and the Institute for the Future of Law Practice place law students in legal tech roles.

Legal tech conferences are another great way to get exposed to the opportunities available. Every year, Stanford Law School’s CodeX center holds a conference called CodeX FutureLaw. Other popular conferences include the Clio Cloud Conference, the ABA TECHSHOW, and Legalweek’s Legaltech. If you’re interested in legal tech and improving access to justice for low-income families, the best conference is the Legal Services Corporation’s Innovations in Tech Conference.

There are also several blogs and books that will help you get up to speed with the intersection of law and technology. A few blogs include LawSites, Above the Law’s Legal Tech section, and Legaltech News. The books we’ve enjoyed the most on this topic are Rebooting Justice: More Technology, Fewer Lawyers, and the Future of Law by Benjamin Barton and Stephanos Bibas and The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts by Daniel and Richard Susskind.

We also believe that everyone who aims to make a difference in legal tech should have a basic understanding of how to code. This doesn’t mean you need to be strong enough to build software from scratch, but you should have a basic understanding of how software works and the work that’s required to build new technology products. A few free resources to teach you the basics of programming include Khan Academy, Code Academy, and Harvard’s CS50. Most cities across the country also have companies that operate in-person coding boot camps of differing commitment and intensity. While they can be expensive, they’ll teach you the basics that’ll be helpful regardless of the role within legal tech that you pursue. Finally, many universities allow law student to cross register in other schools. If you have this option available to you, take advantage of it by enrolling yourself in an introductory computer science course.

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Most companies at the intersection of law and technology have job boards available on their site with openings. Even if they don’t, most companies, especially ones that are venture capital backed, hire opportunistically, so you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to the founders or team members directly with why you think you’re a good fit. When reaching out, one particularly compelling tool we’ve seen is “pre-work.” Startups often see so many resumes that it’s hard to differentiate yourself. One way to stand out is to do a project, whether it’s a presentation, product prototype, etc., that’s related to the company where you’re seeking a job. If you do this, you’ll almost certainly get an informational interview. Another way to dramatically increase your chances of a first conversation is to get a warm referral.

While we haven’t seen any legal tech specific job boards, some do have more of a legal tech flavor. Code for America maintains an excellent list of opportunities called the Public Interest Tech Job Board.

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As an industry, legal tech has only started to scratch the surface. The most valuable companies at the intersection of software and law have yet to be built. If you have a problem that you’d like to address, we encourage you to go for it. But the first step is almost never to incorporate a company. The first step you should take is talk to as many people who experience the pain you’re trying to address. Time you invest into learning about the problem up front will pay dividends down the road, helping you avoid going down the wrong path.

Another important concept to learn is the minimum viable product (MVP). Before we launched a full-blown web application at Upsolve to help low-income families through the bankruptcy process, we created a Typeform that gathered information from users to populate their bankruptcy forms. We then took this information and manually filled out their PDFs. The MVP is the most basic version of your product, which you use to learn as much as possible from your users. We built our MVP without writing any code. Only after we validated our hypothesis that people could sit down and answer 200+ questions about their personal finances, did we decide to build a more robust version of our product that required custom code.

The best books we’ve seen on trying out new ideas in fast, inexpensive ways are the Lean Startup by Eric Ries and Sprint by Jake Knapp.

What are some resources that will be helpful?

Academic Centers

Tools

  • Figma and Sketch to quickly mockup your designs

  • Squarespace to quickly build websites without coding

  • Typeform to create interviews and conduct user interviews

Sample of Legal Tech Companies

Courtesy of CB Insights

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Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) legal aid nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income Americans in financial distress get a fresh start through Chapter 7 bankruptcy at no cost. We do this by combining the power of technology with attorneys. Spun out of Harvard Law School, our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have mission-driven funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and private charities.

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