Law Schools, Technology and Access to Justice

Proposals  by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to upend the traditional organisation of legal education in England and Wales offer the opportunity for discussion of the importance of covering the impact of technology on the training of lawyers. The SRA intends to end the autonomy of law schools to pass students for both the academic and practical stage of qualification. In its place will come the return of nationally set tests – the Solicitors Qualifying Examinations Stages 1 and 2. It is vital that both reflect the degree of change driven by technology in the legal profession.

Domestic English law schools have been rather slower than their American cousins in absorbing technology into the syllabus. Richard Susskind reports ‘with a heavy heart’ that ‘not a single law school in England can boast of a centre focusing on either the future of legal services or the role of technology’ in the recently released second edition of his Tomorrow’s Lawyers: an introduction to your future (OUP).

The United States has been more open to the incorporation of technology into legal education. In some ways, structure makes this easier. Law is a post-graduate three year course combining the academic-practice divide so evident in England and Wales. Practice has a much stronger hold on the teaching programme. A number of US law schools have excellent technology programmes and there have been a number of rankings e.g. Startclass (Yale 1, Stanford 2, Harvard 3) and the ABA’s e-lawyering task force’s top ten. A report on this includes the following coverage of Chicago-Kent College of Law which is worth repeating because it is unique in its longtime concentration on access to justice.

Chicago–Kent College of Law has a Center for Access to Justice & Technology … Of the schools mentioned here, Chicago–Kent has the longest history and deepest commitment to using technology to learn and improve the practice of law. It has partnered with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) for many years and has spawned innovations such as the online course on Topics in Digital Law Practice under the leadership of John Mayer. It is coordinating a national program financed by the federal Legal Services Corp. to train students in document automation using CALI’s A2J Author system to develop programs for legal service programs. This A2J Clinic Project now includes initiatives at Concordia University, City University of New York, the University of Miami and the University of North Carolina, in addition to Columbia and Georgetown, mentioned below. Next year an additional six schools will be selected for participation.

In the US, technology is beginning to filter into mandatory continuing legal education  (CLE) programmes for lawyers. From January, Florida became the first state to require lawyers to undertake a minimum of three hours technology-related CLE courses during a three year cycle. Interestingly, this rule was made by the Florida Supreme Court at the behest of the Florida Bar. That raises an issue for debate about the value of mandating topics for study – on which lawyers will have different views – but it undoubtedly indicates the importance that the profession in Florida is giving to the topic. As a linked initiative, a number of states – reported by commentator Robert Ambrogi as currently 27 – have introduced a requirement for technical competence in technology into their ethical requirements for lawyers as suggested by an ABA model rule.

So, what should happen here? Well, a paper drafted by some of the Cambridge University students behind the well-publicised LawBot providing help to victims of crime suggests (The Black Box Phenomenon: Technological Innovation and Legal Skills by Jia Qing Yap, Fiona Lin, Ben Bolderson  Editor: Ludwig Bull):

  • law schools embrace clinical and experiential learning.
  • law schools should adopt specific courses, which will build technological knowledge. It is neither necessary nor expedient to train future lawyers to understand software architectures or their algorithmic semantics … [But] They must be able to effectively use technology and understand how to maximise the potential of the systems in place.
  • employable legal skills will be developed by integrating technology-consciousness across the curriculum …
  • law schools should prepare students for a different legal landscape by moving towards an interdisciplinary framework, and modularity.

That sounds about right.

In its recent report on technological change in the legal profession, the Law Society’s assessment was that ‘solicitors and lawyers face a future of change on a varied scale … Business as usual may not be an option for many, indeed for any, traditional legal service providers’. That sounds right too.

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