Northwestern Law: Getting ‘Digital Natives’ and Faculty Comfortable with New Technologies

Topics: Automated Contracts, Efficiency, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Managed Services, Talent Development

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In Thomson Reuters’ examination of methods that law schools can use to help their students become more “practice ready”we identified law school faculty and staff already integrating practice-ready skills into their curriculums as well as legal organizations helping new associates connect theory to practice. In the following series of profiles, we explore how these approaches are shaping both law students and law firms.

“We have this assumption that this generation — the digital natives — are experts in technology, but that’s not the case,” Alyson Carrel says. “They may be sleeping with their cell phones and using social media, but they’re not using them to problem-solve, create, or design.”

As Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law’s first appointed Assistant Dean of Law and Technology Initiatives, Carrel’s working to change that.

She says basic computer literacy is “the least sexy but likely to be the easiest to fix” among the challenges of integrating technology into law curriculum. Carrel’s approach emphasizes helping students — and faculty — become comfortable with new technology. “Technology is changing too quickly,” she adds. “We have to help students gain skills of learning new technology, so when they are practicing, and something new comes out, they don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ They say, ‘I have to figure this out quickly, and I can.’”

Innovation Lab

“Having students utilize new technology platforms in the classroom that they’ve never seen or touched before requires them to learn and assess technology quickly,” Carrel says, adding that in Northwestern Law’s Innovation Lab, students use a design-thinking model.

Alyson Carrel, Assistant Dean of Law and Technology Initiatives at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law

“They have to research, explore, and observe what’s happening and identify where there are challenges and issues causing problems in the delivery of legal services,” she explains. “Then they have to design tech-based solutions. The cool thing about Innovation Lab, unique to Northwestern, is it’s not only our JD students but also our LLM, and JD-MBA and MSL students. Within our law school community, that’s four populations working together to identify issues and design tech-based solutions.”

Carrel says this approach extends beyond the lab. “I teach traditional simulation clinic courses, but I’m asking students to identify how technology can be an asset,” she says. “In my mediation classes — Mediation Simulation and a Mediation Advocacy Clinic — a group project is to identify an issue that self-represented individuals are facing and design a tech-based solution to address it. They’ve made apps, how-to videos, and interactive online forms to help self-represented parties prepare for mediation.”

Walking the Walk

Carrel models a willingness to try something new. She recently attended a demonstration on Nearpod, the day before serving as a guest lecturer. Even though she had already prepared her presentation in Google Slides, she used Nearpod — for the first time — in her lecture.

She emphasizes that technology expertise is not required. “I don’t know how to code or create an app myself,” she says. “But I’m willing to try new things, and ask students to try something new and go on this journey with me.”

Carrel urges her colleagues to join the journey, too. She recently worked with Emerson Tiller and Leslie Oster to hosta TEaCH LAW event encouraging the use of technology tools in legal education. “The word ‘tech’ is in the word ‘teach,’ and we need to incorporate more technology in our teaching,” Carrel says. “We started with why it’s important to think about tech: It’s what the future of law looks like. We had a lecture, large group discussions, and panels. We had interactive polling and an online space for people to write their questions throughout the day. We also had faculty — clinicians, librarians, and tenured research faculty — giving 5- to 10-minute demos showing technology in action.” The event sparked a lot of interest, and it has already generated tangible results ranging from the purchase of institutional licenses for class use to a series of lunch-time demos.

Carrel has also explored using wearable technology as a teaching tool in negotiation simulations. When she was named a Digital Learning Fellow in 2014, Carrel purchased wearable cameras for her class to use to record their self-reflection rather than relying on cameras and tripods or laptops.

In addition to requiring students to try something new, the exercise completely changed their perspectives. “It helped students pick up on nuanced moments,” she says. “It was transformative for them.”

Experiencing the potential of new technologies makes trying them less intimidating, Carrel says. “We’re trying to integrate technology and expose students to it. In asking them to navigate in technology, it builds technology fluency muscles.”

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