The Lex 100’s Halima Dikko explores why STEM graduates are so sought after in an industry which has traditionally been dominated by arts and humanities.
These days it’s far from unusual to meet a lawyer who studied a non-law undergraduate degree. Common subject choices for aspiring lawyers include English Literature, History, Politics and Modern Languages. But in recent years, an increasing number of law firms have shifted their focus to recruiting STEM -that is to say Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – graduates, which begs the question- why?
An interest in STEM graduates is not exactly new. For years companies from myriad industries and sectors have been keen to recruit individuals with this educational background because their skills and experiences are relevant and transferable to a number of roles. And the law is no different. The increasing convergence of law and technology (evidenced by firms embracing Artificial Intelligence technologies and the launch of law-tech innovation hubs) has meant that law firms too are seeking to boost their trainee intake with scientific and tech-savvy recruits. Their acute understanding of the challenges facing STEM-centric businesses means that they are well-placed to devise solutions for clients.
For many law firms, especially those with established Intellectual Property (IP) practices and clients in the technology, manufacturing, healthcare and life sciences sectors, recruiting STEM graduates is high on the agenda. Matthew Royle, a partner in Taylor Wessing’s patents department explains: ‘More and more of our clients are in tech sectors and an understanding of our clients’ businesses is becoming more central to the way most law firms work – I think that automatically drives an increase in demand for STEM graduates. With most service industries – and the law is no different – actually having an interest in, and understanding your client’s business and what they’re doing, is really important to the relationships that you’re going to build and the level and quality of service that you can provide to them’.
For Bird & Bird, renowned for its work with Technology Media & Telecommunications clients, recruiting STEM students has been at the forefront of their recruitment programme for some time. Senior graduate recruitment officer Shannen Loudon expounds, ‘we’ve had a well-established IP practice for a long time, so for us it’s always been important that we attract specifically science and engineering students’. Indeed for areas like patent litigation, expert knowledge in the business area of the client and what they are trying to patent is invaluable. ‘If we’re representing pharmaceutical clients for example, it’s important we have individuals who understand and have a background knowledge of chemistry, biochemistry or pharmacology in order to deal with the technology and communicate with the client’s scientists’.
George Khouri, an associate in Bird & Bird’s IP department, echoes Loudon’s sentiment. ‘My background in biomedical engineering gives me an understanding of technical aspects of products that are sold by companies in the life sciences and telecommunications sectors. Having an understanding of some of the general scientific principles that products in these sectors are built on, such as the maths behind image processing algorithms or the physics behind an MRI machine, helps me get to grips with the ‘language’ and particularities of unfamiliar technical areas relatively quickly’.
‘The change in the market with regards to the development of new technologies’ is also a driving force behind the desire to recruit STEM graduates explains Joanne Smallwood, graduate recruitment specialist at Womble Bond Dickinson. These technologies have a profound effect on the way clients run their business and having individuals who are privy to the workings of such innovations is a significant benefit to both the firm and the client. ‘Having a solid grasp of the technology may give the client more confidence in your legal advice and help you discuss matters with expert witnesses with assurance’ says Khouri. Bird & Bird IP associate Georgina Hart expands, explaining that ‘Everyone is on an even playing field when it comes to the law but having some awareness of a particular field that a client operates in can help you when discussing technical topics’.
Aside from the knowledge and understanding of science and technology that STEM graduates bring to the practice of law, their ‘methodical and ‘logical way of doing things’ also makes them desirable to law firms, claims Royle. Loudon agrees: ‘They’ve got skills – specifically in research – that are really transferable to the role of a lawyer’.
Though STEM graduates offer a unique and valuable skill-set and expertise to the practice of law, that’s not to say law firms are sidelining candidates from other academic backgrounds, nor do they believe students who haven’t studied a STEM-related subject are lacking in any way. Gemma Barrett, IP partner at Bristows insists that non-STEM graduates should not be discouraged: ‘They’re just as able to do the work, it’s just that they might have to put a little bit more time into reading into the background so that they can get up to speed. But there’s absolutely no bar to them doing IP, we’ve got plenty of people who do really well without any kind of science background. Graduates from other disciplines just need to show that they’re interested in the area and that they’re not scared or put off. Quite often people who haven’t studied science get scared by the terminology and just run off the minute they see that – I think it’s just getting over that initial fear’.
‘In any work environment you need a mix of different people as different people bring different qualities to the team’ explains Royle. Smallwood is similarly vocal about the need for a mixed group of trainees, believing that whilst individuals who studied STEM subjects are important to recruit due to new and emerging technologies, recruiters ‘don’t disregard students from the other non-law subjects. We still very much need that diverse group of people coming through the business, that’s how you make a good team’.