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Thursday, March 08, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 10

Growing The Scope Of What We Do

I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this important conversation.  I especially appreciate the framing - initiating a dialogue as a predicate step for future developments in legal education.  In all our busy lives, I believe we are intensely interested and motivated to work hard on behalf of our students and the profession. But it is useful to force ourselves on occasion to break out of the necessary day-to-day effort on immediate outcomes and pause for a moment to set guideposts for the industry’s future.

What questions do we need to think about in assessing the “futures” of the legal profession?  To open, a few:

Is the profession changing? 

Sure – it has changed before, and will always change.  The harder question is if there are trends that demand particular attention.  Here, I think the answer is clearly yes.

By even casual observation, it is clear that technology is beginning to set its grapple hooks into the business of law.  When I was a baby lawyer, I cut my teeth on discovery, often reviewing lots of documents in windowless rooms.  Now electronic discovery is now being handled in part by machine learning algorithms, which do a much better and more cost-effective job than I ever did.   JP Morgan, for example, has developed a machine learning system called COIN (Contract Intelligence), that purports to reduce to a matter of seconds work that would have taken lawyers 360,000 hours to complete.  A teenager in London created a chatbot lawyer that effortlessly overturned 160,000 parking tickets in New York and London, saving pleaders more than $4 million in fines.  LegalZoom has incorporated more than 1 million businesses through a simple online form, work that used to be the first introduction of a company to an attorney.

Similarly, as other contributors have noted, we have an access to justice crisis in this country.  People who desperately need lawyers cannot afford them.  Three quarters of those who go into state courts do so unrepresented.  Here in California, there is 1 legal aid lawyer for approximately every 20,000 eligible poor people.  People who do not have lawyers will have worse outcomes, and this undermines the legitimacy of our most prized possession, the rule of law.

Does legal education need to adapt?

Also, I believe, an easy “yes.”  We have adapted in the past, and stand poised for even greater innovation. 

An important first step is taking stock of our core values.  American legal education has excelled by teaching a mode of analysis and dispute resolution that works in the world, and I do not see that core mission becoming irrelevant in my professional lifetime.  Law schools deliver some tools and skills that are and will remain essential in any future still bound by law and legal norms, and it is dangerous to neglect that core.  But we ignore the trends above, and others other participants have framed, at our peril.  And although innovation will be non-linear and responses will be varied, I want to suggest a unifying theme:

We must enlarge the scope of what we do to become relevant to a broader universe of people in a complex world and changing profession.

This does not mean enlarging JD enrollments – indeed most law schools (including mine) have gone in the opposite direction.  But we have to do more, both within the JD program and outside of it. 

Inside the JD program, we need to train lawyers that have competencies to participate in and even guide the technological developments of the future.  As we know our students will have many jobs over the course of their careers (including some that do not exist yet), we need to invest in treating law school as an exercise in fostering life-long learning.  And a careful examination of access to justice needs to be an essential part of any JD curriculum – we must not only teach, but take advantage of the crucial aspect of professional formation to inspire our students to serve the most vulnerable over the course of their careers.  To accomplish these goals, we need more advanced partnerships – with employers of the future, with non-profit and governmental entities seeking to create a more just world.  We cannot meet these challenges inside our walls.

Outside the JD program, the challenges are even more visible but the opportunities more exciting.  Many schools have already broadened their relevance by taking what we do best as legal educators to new audiences, evidenced in the growth of master’s degrees and LLM programs (conceding that motivation for these have been declining JD enrollments and need to new revenue sources outside the JD program).  But more can and must be done.  Perhaps one day law schools will not be viewed merely as an institution granting JDs after 3 years of study, but rather as an essential core curriculum for professionals in any discipline.  And as more professionals interact with the legal system, we can make people better clients and consumers of legal services.  We will have to grapple with what advantages and capabilities we have in a world of unbundled legal services and where more and more people seek knowledge outside of the world of the traditional university.

I will expand on these themes, and discuss in more depth specific innovations, in future posts.

Michael Waterstone (Loyola - Los Angeles)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 8, 2018 at 10:21 AM | Permalink


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