A paper from Thomson Reuters throws down a challenge, mainly directed at US law schools, as to how they should respond to the advances of technology in legal services. This is based on what might be described as a pretty ‘quick and dirty’ methodology: 30 interviews, six examples of good practice and a consequent eight page ‘white paper’. Nevertheless, the legal publisher is onto a real problem and one which is relevant to England and Wales – though the response might differ because of the different arrangements for legal education.
The author, Thomson Reuter’s Director of Marketing Katie Walter, sets out six recommendations: law schools
- should include more diverse experiential learning;
- prepare students for transactional practice;
- focus on the business side of law;
- expose students to legal processes and case management requirements;
- emphasise interpersonal and advocacy skills;
- require proficiency with legal technologies.
Training is, of course, different in England and Wales. Instead of a three year second degree, law is split into an academic stage (either three years or one year for graduates) and a vocational stage that involves, at the moment, a one year Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a two year training contract. The LPC concentrates on practical issues of the kind emphasised by Ms Walter like transactional practice – something also encouraged by the separate training course for those who wish to become barristers. However, this very development has allowed academic departments to treat law more as an intellectual discipline than a subject of practical application. Most LPC courses and some degree courses have made some move towards incorporating a degree of clinical education but clinical experience is by no means universally available to law students, academic or on the LPC. There are proposals from the regulator to replace the LPC with a Bar examination. That would make it harder for students to undertake the training processes suggested in the Thomson Reuters paper: the emphasis would be on passing of the examination – even if this covered issues relevant to practice management and technology.
Let us assume that the Thomson Reuters analysis holds for England and Wales. And there seems no reason to think otherwise. Law students are entering the legal market with little understanding of how technology will affect their practice. An associate dean of Oklahoma University’s College of Law is quoted as saying: ‘We realised students would be at a competitive disadvantage if they’re not proficient with law practice technology’. The Dean articulated the proper response: ‘It is a necessity for our law students to leave law school with a technology proficiency’. That would seem as good for England and Wales as anywhere else.
In the US, it is the law schools that have to respond – as a number of them have, some with real imagination and commitment. Stanford and Georgetown are just two unlisted in the Thomson Reuters paper with very public technology-oriented courses. No doubt, some of the others need the kind of encouragement given in the paper. The American Bar Association has gone out of its way to promote those schools that give technology due weight.
In England and Wales, the potential respondents are more diffuse. They include the academic law departments who really should be taking up the challenge of integrating technology into their courses. Even more so should LPC providers – for as long as that course survives. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has to be sure to incorporate testing a facility with technology within its all-singing, all-dancing examination. But, most interestingly, there is perhaps a role here for the Law Society. It needs to develop revenue-raising activity as threats to split its regulatory and representational functions grow more intense. And what could be better for the Society than resurrecting its former role as the trainer to the profession by devising short courses for those entering the profession on technology? These would probably be financially viable even if attendance were not required by the regulator. Ulster University’s new Legal Innovation Centre certainly thinks so and is offering precisely this kind of short course in Belfast. Other educational institutions could enter the market on the mainland. But, actually, the Law Society would have considerable advantage, not least in terms of its reputation, by providing short courses on technology for those entering the legal market. So, what about it, Chancery Lane?