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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Quotation Marks
Most arguments which pretend to be about law are actually arguments about the correct analysis and ?categorisation of the facts – Lord Sumption

Lawyering with numbers

Lawyering  with numbers


Nicola Laver reports on the growing demand for trainees with a mathematical skillset to meet the needs of modern practice

Lord Sumption, increasingly notorious and applauded in equal measure for stating what others think but dare not publicly say, has often advocated the view that it’s best not to read law as an undergraduate if you want to be a lawyer.

In an interview soon after being sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in 2012, he commented that “most arguments which pretend to be about law are actually arguments about the correct analysis and categorisation of the facts”.

“This is why the study of something involving the analysis of evidence… or the study of a subject which comes close to pure logic, like mathematics, is at least as valuable a preparation for legal practice as the study of law”, he added.

Jonny Hurst is a chess player. So what? You might ask. A former partner at a top 100 firm, now a senior lecturer at BPP Law School, Hurst seriously contemplated reading mathematics and economics but opted for a law degree instead.

“I also played a lot of chess as a teenager”, he says, “and I’m certain that the way I work things out as a lawyer has been shaped by my maths and chess training – thinking strategically, so many moves ahead, having formal structures to work with, being able to do complex calculations in your head, and so on.”

Hurst is also BPP Law School’s head of outreach and student recruitment. He comments: “There is no doubt that a mathematical mind, which is perhaps more logic and process driven than that of some LLB graduates, is a great skill to have as a lawyer.”

Future lawyers

In recent years, the growing need for lawyers to have a wider, mathematically based skillset to meet the challenges of practicing law in a modern age has been acknowledged. Legal Cheek founder Alex Aldridge recognised this back in 2017 when he set up the UK’s first network for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students and graduates who wanted to enter the profession.

The network – STEM Future Lawyers – came about precisely because of increasing demand among law firms for STEM students. Aldridge got the venture off the ground using Legal Cheek’s student database. He says: “[It] is now very much a brand in its own right, with over 2,000 members, 20+ leading global, magic circle and specialist law firm clients.”

Incidentally, BPP Law School sponsors an annual scholarship for a STEM Future Lawyers member to study on the General Diploma in Law (GDL).

This drive to attract STEM graduates is steadily gaining traction. Today, as many as 50 per cent of the trainee intake by many top firms that BPP works closely with are non-law graduates. This reveals a profession increasingly hunting down graduates with different skillsets and experiences beyond pure law graduates.

It’s not that STEM graduates actually perform better than law graduates – to infer otherwise would be an insult to almost every solicitor in the UK – rather, they offer a different skillset. 

“I don’t think either is ‘better’ – they’re just ‘different’”, Hurst observes. Non-law graduates tend to bring “a little more breadth of skills and knowledge, which is countered by a law graduate’s greater depth of legal knowledge” 

So, maths graduates and their STEM cousins are not disadvantaged by virtue of not having studied law? Hurst notes that some non-law undergraduates suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ because they worry that they’re not at the same level as their LLB peers.  

“But by the time they get onto the LPC”, he explains, “I can honestly say that I can’t tell them apart, except perhaps when there’s a tax calculation to undertake or a formula to apply, which is when the maths and other STEM graduates come into their own. Occasionally, I come across a maths graduate who lacks confidence when writing prose, but what one or two may lack in linguistic finesse, tends to be balanced out by a much more structured, focused and ‘straight to the point’ piece of work.”

A business mind

In modern practice, lawyering is but a part of the lawyer’s role – running a business and having the business acumen to make a profit out of lawyering is vital. 

While lawyers tend to be articulate and literate they are, says Oliver Price, managing partner at Wansbroughs, perhaps less numerate. A pure maths graduate himself, he says: “[Numeracy] is useful when reading company accounts, which for many lawyers is a daily task and an easier one for mathematicians. If you end up in management, being able to read accounts becomes rather more important to the health of your business.”

Then there’s the key issue of technology and data-driven decision making in law. As Hurst comments: “Big data is, of course, massively important to the successful running of any business, especially law firms. While maths and statistics graduates don’t have a monopoly in being able to interpret and respond effectively to data-driven reports, there’s no doubt that their skillset and training provides them with a better foundation than most of their peers.”

Hurst notes that top intellectual property firms “make a point” of welcoming applications from candidates with a STEM background because they are more likely to be more comfortable with the scientific complexity of many of their instructions.

Clifford Chance is one of the growing number of firms purposefully recruiting maths and other STEM graduates. The firm’s graduate recruiter, Yasmina Kone, highlights the attraction: “It’s widely recognised that a diversity of thought leads to more productive teams and innovative solutions. The law has traditionally been a career that individuals from law and arts backgrounds have gravitated towards, and we recognised that we could be missing out on important perspectives.” 

For many years, the profession has failed to recognise the transferable skills inherent in maths and other STEM graduates but, in Hurst’s experience, the explosion of legal tech in the last 10 to 15 years has led to many more maths graduates working for law firms, a demand that will continue. 

“This has, in turn informed trainee recruitment policy to look further afield than just the traditional LLB and arts graduates”, adds Hurst.

Kone has noted how the rise of legal tech is an area that seems to particularly interest STEM students for good reason. In response, Clifford Chance created IGNITE – a training contact aimed at STEM applicants with an aptitude for tech and who, says Kone, “could focus on this alongside their fee-earning work”.

Training challenges

I wonder whether legal education and training is too limited for the modern, business-focused legal practice. Particularly, should all those responsible for educating and training tomorrow’s solicitors be tapping into a wider range of mathematical skills and incorporating this into their programmes and qualifications?

The regulator, having recently unveiled its final version of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), has had the perfect opportunity to do this. But as Hurst points out, it’s a little premature to criticise a new regime before it has been implemented.

However, he says: “The view of many commentators is that it is perverse that all prospective solicitors will still need a background in traditional specialist practice areas like crime, wills and the administration of estates.”

An early grounding in practice management, of the ‘law firm as a business’ and skills such as project management, digital skills, legal tech and interpreting data would, he suggests, benefit many more newly qualified (NQ) solicitors.

Leading legal educators and top firms will fill the gap (Hurst says that was always the SRA’s intention) but he fears an “unfortunate outcome”; that not all SQE test preparation courses and law firms will provide every NQ solicitor with the training needed to hit the ground running as they enter a data-driven profession.

He anticipates that as a result of the regulator’s exclusion of ‘new learning’ from core mandatory legal education, the undergraduate training of maths, statistics and other STEM lawyers may well equip them with greater potential to excel in those legal skills than their LLB counterparts.  

Clifford Chance launched its learning internships for future trainees (LIFT) precisely because “the firm recognises that what makes a good lawyer is much more than understanding the law”, says Kone.

Through LIFT, non-legal career development opportunities are provided as part of the firm’s offering. Kone adds: “On the mathematical skills point, one of the sessions that we have introduced to trainee induction is on financial literacy, through our ‘introduction to law firm economics’, and a one-day business finance course. This is incredibly important for trainees, as the best way to understand the bigger picture – and how you fit into it – is to understand how the business works.”

Law and justice

The benefits of a mathematical background as a lawyer are not limited to areas of lawtech and business, they reach into many practice areas. 

Kone, noting that mathematicians by nature will have a very methodical way of thinking, comments: “You need to be able to process a lot of information, problem solve, and communicate solutions effectively to clients… all qualities that maths, and other STEM students, tend to have as a result of their degrees, and if they can apply them to a legal scenario then it’s a strong point to start from.”

Corporate and commercial lawyers are increasingly compelled, in the modern business environment, to understand their clients’ needs, often within the context of complex global businesses.

Price highlights the value his mathematical background brings to his practice. “Real estate work requires a lawyer to grapple with complex and intersecting concepts… Sometimes, the answer to a real estate problem requires lateral thinking outside of the immediate facts.”

Even a basic grasp of geometry is useful with land law, he adds. A significant case of his own illustrates the point. In Parshall v Hackney [2013] EWCA Civ 240, a small area of land measuring roughly two by four metres, registered to both parties’ titles, was overlapping. It wasn’t any old piece of land, it was in Chelsea and “worth enough for the parties to survive three rounds of civil litigation”, as Lord Justice Mummery observed. 

Though the dispute was not about the position or delineation of the boundaries of the two properties per se, the point is that the area was a relatively small irregular quadrilateral requiring a level of mathematical skill.

Toby Huggins, a barrister at Unity Street Chambers, took a mathematics degree and “is at ease with cases involving complex financial issues”, as his online profile reads. “Maths has helped me in that it means I can think very clearly and analyse the logic of legal rules and contentious clauses in documents, and so on, easily”, he says.

But there is something that troubles him – the use of statistics in criminal trials “by expert witnesses who do not understand statistics – that can create real injustice”.

A year ago, a twitter discussion broke out between a handful of lawyers. (James Corbett QC’s comment that “a lot of people – not all of them lawyers – give up and die when faced with anything mathematical” inspired this feature).

The discussion mostly concerned an article published on the website, co-authored by Mr Justice Mostyn, in which it was argued that “the laws of probability promote coherent fact-finding and avoid potentially unjust logical contradictions”.

Among a number of authorities discussed, the paper cited the appeal ruling in Re A (Children) [2018] EWCA Civ 1718 (which followed the death by strangulation of a 10-year-old girl) in which Mr Justice Francis considered the probability of suicide together with the probability of accident, alongside the possibility that a family member had killed her. The authors describe the approach taken by Francis J as “legitimate, as well as being mathematically and logically sound”.

But the online commentators lamented the general absence among lawyers and jurists of a grasp of mathematics. One anonymous tweeter suggested that Sally Clark would never have been convicted “if any of the lawyers involved had had an A level in maths”. In fact, the error in that case arose because of an expert witness whose evidence was accepted, an error pointed out by a professor of statistics, though the tweeter countered that it was “a schoolboy error”. 

Readers will recall that Sally Clark was a solicitor who was wrongly convicted for smothering her two young children. In a paper, Conviction By Mathematical Error? published in 2000 by the British Medical Journal, Dr Stephen Watkins analysed the treatment of DNA evidence and probability in that case.

He wrote: “With conflicting forensic evidence, the crown’s case was bolstered by an eminent paediatrician testifying that the chances of two cot deaths happening in this family was vanishingly small—1 in 73 million. This seriously misunderstands probability theory… with this mathematical error prominent the conviction is unsafe.”

His view was that the basic principles were not difficult to understand, and that judges could be trained to recognise and rule out the kind of misunderstanding that arose in this case. “Never again”, wrote Watkins, “must mathematical error be allowed to conflict with mathematical fact as if each were a legitimate expert view.”

He said guidelines for using probability theory in criminal cases were urgently needed. A joint guide on statistics and probability for advocates was published in 2017 by The Inns of Court College of Advocacy (ICCA) and the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) but, beyond court rulings, there seems to be little in the way of formal guidance elsewhere. 

To err is human, as Alexander Pope famously said. The problem for lawyers is that to err can have profound consequences for an individual, as it did for Sally Clark, less so for others. In a recent criminal appeal, for instance, the offender could have served a longer custodial sentence than he was due because of an arithmetical error on the part of the sentencing judge (R v Williamson [2020] EWCA Crim 1085).

The appellant had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to rob, but appealed the sentence of 16 years 10 months arguing that insufficient credit had been given for his guilty plea. Though the Court of Appeal concluded that the sentence was neither manifestly excessive nor wrong in principle – a mathematical error was picked up during the course of argument on the morning of the court’s judgment. 

The sentencing judge had wrongly calculated a 10 per cent discount with the effect that eight months was added to the sentence. The appeal court quashed the sentence and substituted a lesser sentence to reflect this error. 

It represents just one example of where a lawyer with some mathematical training could have recognised a miscalculation promptly.  

This error, had it not been picked up, could have cost the defendant eight months of his liberty. It is concerning that over the course of many months, none of the defendant’s legal team, the CPS, the crown court judge or any other professionals involved in the case detected the error.

It is also concerning that in his judgment, Mr Justice Spencer passed no comment on the failure to spot the miscalculation. The late Lord Denning, who had first class degrees both in mathematics and in law and who adjudged many a criminal case, would undoubtedly have levelled some criticism at the lawyers involved. 

In demand

Lawyers with a mathematical background have never been more in demand because of the added value they bring. The evidence is that firms will increasingly be drawn to them in response to the way modern legal practice is evolving.

As Hurst comments: “Nowadays, being able to create innovative new processes and influence new technology can be just as significant to the profitability of a law firm as winning a new client.”

The drive to widen the pool of talent among future lawyers beyond the traditional law degree route is gaining momentum, but it needs to filter down throughout the profession. 

Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal and a former solicitor