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Friday, March 09, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 12

Outrunning Niels

A range of commentators in this symposium have identified tech as an important driving force in the changes in legal education. It’s not hard to see that if we’re to make law school more relevant to our students, and if we are serious about making our graduates capable of operating in a fast-changing legal services marketplace, we clearly need to do something about the technology gap in law school education. But what should we do?

One response is to teach law students how to code. Two approaches to this have emerged in law schools. The first—exemplified by the excellent subject called “Computer Programming for Lawyers” run by Paul Ohm at Georgetown (https://cp4l.org/)—is a kind-of standard comp sci “Intro to Programming 101” class, but with a legal tinge. (Not just regular expressions, but regular expressions in legal search, etc) This approach is useful in imparting some new knowledge to law students, gives them a tiny bit of coding skill, and maybe changes their relationship with their computer a little. This approach has utility, I think, in the same way that a really good “Law & Literature” class has utility, providing the student with a bit of diversity of outlook and a welcome break from all those endless rules and cases that they have to study in their black letter classes.

Another approach is to give lawyers some training in how to translate legal rules into an expert system shell or how one can pour legal cases into a neural net simulator. I ran this kind of AI & Law class at Melbourne University Law School and then Chicago-Kent, around 20 years ago. The newer iterations of this sort of approach are exemplified in the Iron Tech/Apps for Justice classes that David Johnson pioneered at the center that I ran at New York Law School about ten years ago, which then found its way to Georgetown, Melbourne Uni, and places in between. This sort of course is useful to teach translational skills—from legal code into computer code—that are of significant value for the law grads who want to work in knowledge management departments or want to code expert systems.

While these approaches create great marketing copy, and are useful in the limited ways I mention above, they are hardly the panacea for students who are graduating into the new legal services marketplace. It is definitely a good thing for a law grad to know how to do code in Python or Neota (or, even better, in R), but that’s like saying it’s a good thing for a student to have taken a negotiation class or been on moot court. Valuable skills, to be sure, but hardly game-changers. I don’t think that one elective in programming is the solution to the problem the students face in navigating the new normal of a legal profession being eaten away at all sides. Also, because it’s an elective in an otherwise traditional JD, only a small number of self-selecting students will ever do it.

What, then, should a law school do?

Our approach has three layers. At the bottom, every student is exposed to (1) the concept of an innovation mindset, and (2) some applications of technology in legal practice. The first aspect focuses them on understanding how careers in law look these days, and seeks to give them some skills around managing their work life in a time of ruthless change. The second aspect is much more practical: in Contract Law we teach them about smart contracts and the blockchain, in Civ Pro we show them e-discovery and explain how predictive coding and AI will affect their early working life as litigators overseeing document review, and so on. These aren’t much, but they provide a foundation for the deeper layers. And they also mean that every student has some basic context of how technology and change will affect them, even if they choose to focus on other aspects or use their law degree for other purposes.

At the next level up, we give students a small range of electives that are focused on technology and innovation within legal services. This means that we have Legal Tech & Innovation units that focus on legal translational work, coding legal materials into computer systems. Students gain familiarity with AI & law, and with inference engines and representational formalisms. We also have a Business of Law class, that is aimed at explaining the structural changes that are going on in the legal profession, so that they know not only the basics of legal practice—can use an LPMS, understand how legal partnerships work, and why they are a poor business structure if you want effective investment in the future, etc—but they also understand the big structural changes that will affect them—the development of the “legal operative”, how managed legal services works, what LPO (legal process outsourcing) to South Africa and India means for them, the rise of private litigation funding firms and its effect on the legal system, and so on. About 30% of our cohort will undertake these sorts of opportunities.

The final layer (which suits about 10% of the class) is a Y Combinator-like incubator/accelerator for law firms, courts, and non-profits. The insight is to have a hosted innovation lab that generates intrapreneurial innovation within the firm/court/agency and which gives our students experience in managing and developing legal innovation. We have students work with a legal technologist, a startup mentor, and faculty from our design school to take the client from ideation through to product/demo. Students work as members of a team, being involved in every stage of the innovation cycle. They get exposed to design thinking, agile management techniques, lean canvas experimentation, coding, and the business challenges of innovating in law. They also typically build proof-of-concept computer systems for the legal client.

Is this the best (or only) way to provide students with the skills to succeed in the new legal environment? Of course not. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be the best of all possible worlds. My approach is structured around the old joke about Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, who find themselves stalked by a lion. When Albert pulls out his running shoes, Niels says, “Don’t be stupid, Albert, you can’t run faster than a lion.” Albert replies, “I don’t have to run faster than the lion, Niels. Just faster than you.” [1]

My students don’t have to be the platonic ideal of the graduates for the legal future. They just need to be better than grads from my competitors.

And, I’m proud to say, they are.


Dan Hunter (Swinburne Australia)


[1] I have heard this joke told in many different forms, sometimes featuring these two eminent physicists, sometimes just with generic hikers, sometimes with a bear, a tiger, and a lion. I have no idea why the joke is funnier with a lion, Einstein, and Bohr as the protagonists. But it is.

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 9, 2018 at 09:28 AM in 2018 Symposium: Future of Legal Ed | Permalink


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