Emerging Legal Technology Forum 2017: Who? How? & When? Imagining the Future of Legal Education

Topics: Emerging Legal Technology Forum, Law Firms, Law Schools, Leadership, Legal Education, Legal Executive Events, Legal Innovation, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts

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TORONTO —  The often-asked question in the legal profession of “Who will train lawyers for today’s marketplace?” became the central focus of a panel at Thomson Reuters recent 2017 Emerging Legal Technology Forum, held last month in Toronto.

I moderated the panel, which consisted of a diverse set of players with some different perspectives on the topic: Monica Goyal, Founder of My Legal Briefcase & Aluvion Law and Adjunct Professor at theOsgoode Hall Law School; Edward Iacobucci, Dean & James M. Tory Professor of Law at The University of Toronto Faculty of Law; Daniel W. Linna, Jr., Director of LegalRnD & Professor of Law in Residence at Michigan State University College of Law; and Chris Wedgeworth, Co-Founder of Hotshot.

This panel demonstrated that the whole question about the future of legal education is really a number of different but related questions, around how we teach legal technology to students, who teaches it, and when.

The panelists had a wide range of experience and thinking on this. Iacobucci staked out a traditionalist position, arguing not that lawyers of today don’t need the technology and other multidisciplinary skills, but that those skills are best acquired outside the traditional core legal curriculum. The strength of law schools, he explained, is the development of higher-level thinking abilities, not the skills-based, practice-ready approach. His argument is echoed in the current debate around liberal arts education generally — in which one side of the debate is that many jobs in tech fields skills require the skills taught in the humanities, such as critical thinking, empathy, communication and argumentation, etc. (See, for example, Don’t Panic, Liberal Arts Majors. The Tech World Wants You.)

It should be added that Iacobucci identified many opportunities for acquiring technology and other practical skills at his institution — but that those fall outside the core legal training, in co-curricular multidisciplinary courses and programs. He also made the case that technology and skills training has a short shelf-life given the rapid pace of technological change. However, he said, the thing that law schools are best at — the development of legal thinking — is the more constant and immutable part of a law school experience.

All this leaves us with a menu of approaches for training tomorrow’s lawyers that can be found inside traditional legal ed, but that also extends beyond the four walls of a law school and beyond the fixed time frame of a legal degree.

Linna and Goyal, for their part, detailed programs that bring multidisciplinary training closer to the center of the law school experience. Linna’s LegalRnD program at Michigan State is one of the most advanced programs following that model. Classes there bring scientific and quantitative methods into the law school, and include strong research and collaboration programs with legal aid organizations and firms outside the law school. His response to Iacobucci’s argument is that, while LegalRnD might be teaching specific skills and technologies, it is also teaching these as “meta skills.” Law students might not apply the exact coding language they learn in law school, but by learning that coding they are learning discipline about process that is directly applicable to legal practice, for example. Linna’s theory is that by learning to apply one technology, students are learning a skill transferable to other technologies as well.

Wedgeworth’s perspective is informed by the wider trends in education outside of legal. His company, Hotshot, provides just-in-time training on legal and business subjects. This is practical, in the moment, digital training, and it’s delivered entirely outside of the law school and traditional continuing legal education (CLE) structure. The success of Hotshot is evidence of the extension of legal education outside traditional training institutions, (addressing the “who” question), and the need for quick, timely, often unscheduled training outside the normal training process (the “when” question).

Of course, all this leaves us with a menu of approaches for training tomorrow’s lawyers that can be found inside traditional legal ed, but that also extends beyond the four walls of a law school and beyond the fixed time frame of a legal degree. Given this wide variety of approaches, one of my questions to the panel was “Who gets to decide what legal education looks like?” With all these competing models, and multiple stakeholders (law schools, students, law firms, clients, and regulators) how do we find a balance and a standard for what legal ed should look like?

Linna’s response seemed to fit the current situation best: The customers need to decide.

Law students come into the industry without understanding how the various parts of the industry work, and we need to get students to use their law school careers to position themselves for work in those various areas. We need to talk to the employers that hire our law students and our alumni, and find out what their needs are and introduce them to the students we produce. It’s no surprise that this growth in new models for multidisciplinary legal education coincides with the growth of organizations like CLOC (the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) which is trying to professionalize more of the operations and technical side of the delivery of legal services.

Through these reform movements and the clients they ultimately represent are getting more vocal about their needs, and are already providing a lot of the guidance on how we need to bring legal education into better alignment with the changing industry.