Law students are reading the winds of technological disruption in the legal profession and pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees to stand out from their peers.
Statistics from three of Australia’s leading law schools show the number of undergraduates studying STEM with law has increased dramatically in the past decade.
From left: University of Sydney Law-STEM double degree students Madeline Kan, Michelle Chen, Riley Vaughan and Piadora Rahme. Oscar Colman
Lawyers with science and technology backgrounds are more likely to “embrace change”, firms and students say, as law firms grapple with the impacts of artificial intelligence on their business and clients increasingly demand lawyers with industry-specific knowledge.
At the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland, enrolments in law-STEM programs have more than doubled in the past 15 years. At the University of NSW, enrolments in the same programs have increased six-fold in that time. Double degree law-STEM students now make up 15 per cent to 20 per cent of law school cohorts at these three universities.
Piadora Rahme, a University of Sydney student in the final year of a law-science degree, said the advance of technology in the legal profession was driving demand for lawyers with science and IT backgrounds.
“It’s really important that the law is able to keep up with [technological change], and by doing law and science you’re better placed to interpret and know about these things,” Ms Rahme said. She said her STEM degree has proven attractive to firms during the competitive clerkship process.
Another law-science student, Michelle Chen, agreed. “I think there is definitely something [law firms] see in us … it’s probably that diverse skill set and openness to change,” she said.
Riley Vaughan, a final year law-engineering student, said the double degree was “a massive differentiator”. “It’s instantly something new and different, rather than just the standard commerce degree,” he said.
Beyond the novelty factor, employing STEM-trained lawyers would be valuable to firms learning to understand the impact of technology on the future of legal work.
“The legal profession isn’t going to be left behind, but it is going to be changed completely by artificial intelligence and other technologies,” Mr Vaughan said.
“Firms are beginning to understand that if you have a technological understanding, you will not only be able to do your own job more efficiently, but also connect with modern clients better.”
With renewable energy, health and intellectual property occupying an increasing proportion of large firms’ business, the ability to offer clients lawyers with technical expertise and industry-specific knowledge creates a competitive advantage.
“No one wants to get stuck with a dusty old lawyer,” Mr Vaughan said.
The students said they have already used their technical skills to create the kind of efficiencies craved by cost-conscious law firms.
Mr Vaughan wrote a code to scrape footnotes from High Court judgments, reducing a five-hour task to 10 minutes. Ms Chen was able to save her firm the cost of hiring a specialist consultant on a case by using her science training to more effectively research and interpret information from scientific journals.
The students agreed a science and technology background made them less likely to fear the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on the legal profession, and their own future careers.
Madeline Kan, in her fourth year of a law-engineering degree, said having a technological background made her more confident about the future uses and benefits of AI in the legal field.
“If you’re able to understand parts of the code, and why certain mechanisms are in place, there’s a lot less fearmongering,” she said.
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