Next-Generation Legal Technologists Reflect on Legal Education at CALIcon

Topics: Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Innovation, Legal Technologists


This blog post was written by Michael Robak, Director of the Schoenecker Law Library, Associate Dean for Technology & Information Services and Clinical Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas (Minneapolis) School of Law.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is legal technology a real path for future opportunities and employment for law students? And are law school administration and faculty doing enough to support them?

On June 8, I moderated a panel, entitled Bridging the Gap on Legal Tech Proficiency at Law Schools, at the CALIcon 2018 Conference at American University Washington College of Law. CALIcon is the annual meeting of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), a consortium of law schools focused on the application of technology to legal education. CALI conducts applied research and development in computer-mediated legal education and creates tools that increase access to justice. Each year, CALIcon attracts tech-oriented law faculty, law librarians, legal technologists, and EdTech and distance learning staff.

The panel I moderated consisted of four recent law school graduates, all of whom are inaugural members of the American Bar Association’s Center for Innovation Fellows program — and representatives of the best and brightest of the coming generation of legal technology and innovation leaders. The Fellows work on projects at the Center that enhance legal services and improve access to justice with the help of technology.

The Fellows, and their current projects, are:

  • Amanda Brown, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, ’16 (@BDASHAmBrow) is assisting with a joint project by Microsoft, Pro Bono Net and the Legal Service Corporation to design statewide online justice portals.
  • Athena Fan, American University Washington College of Law, ’17 (@AthenFanLT) is leveraging her legal-tech background and experience during a civil advocacy clinic to design a data-driven conversational chatbot project that guides self-represented litigants to legal resources and legal information.
  • Tobias (Toby) Franklin, University of Maine School of Law, ’17 (@tobyafranklin), has developed a web application called Fair Screening for tenants. The application improves long-term housing outcomes for tenants by empowering them to assert their legal rights, take control of the rental application process, and correct screening report mistakes, with the help of document assembly and expert system technologies.
  • Irene Mo, Michigan State University, ’17 (@imokx) is currently working on state-wide legal services websites to integrate a privacy and data security check-up tool into current state resources.

The panelists discussed their paths to legal technology and their experiences at their various law schools. Each had a particular mentor to help guide them into the world of legal tech. When Irene Mo was researching law schools, Dan Katz and the ReInvent Law program at Michigan State University (MSU) seemed to be the best option for her to build on top of her quantitative background and apply these skills to the practice of law. When Prof. Katz left for Chicago-Kent after her first year, she was fortunate to have the opportunity to help Prof. Daniel W. Linna Jr. launch and shape MSU’s LegalRnD—The Center for Legal Services Innovation.

For Toby Franklin, the University of Maine School of Law had no specific course framework on legal tech, but he worked with Prof. Lois Lupica on a grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund and partnered with Neota Logic to create the Apps for Justice project. Toby’s background as a technology developer gave him insight that is usually not part of a general law student’s background.

The panel as a whole concluded that, in the absence of more structure and direction, students who want to succeed with legal technology need to be very self-directed and highly organized, as well as able to work independently of direct instruction.

Athena Fan’s Dean at American University sits on the Council for the ABA Center for Innovation and, during her time in school, the Dean began focusing on innovation. Her work in a law practice management class, taught by adjuncts who were small law firm partners with practical experience, served as an inspiration to her to seek out more opportunities with legal technology.

Amanda Brown worked with a clinic run by Loyola faculty member R. Judson Mitchell, Jr. It was her work in the school’s Technology and Legal Innovation clinic that was her springboard for diving into legal technology.

These young lawyers, who had just left the halls of academia, observed a need to increase law school administration and faculty awareness that legal technology is a real path for future opportunities and employment. Most importantly, they all felt strongly that having technology incorporated into the curriculum and developing technology skills were a distinct competitive advantage in the legal marketplace.

The panel also saw a need for faculty — particularly traditional doctrinal faculty — to become more receptive to curricular programming involving technology and technology skills. Law schools also need to create more substantive classes with “hands-on” components. There are plenty of tools out there for people to learn, but law schools need to get on board so students feel supported and guided.

The panel also suggested that working with adjuncts and clinical faculty who are closer to the ground in experience than regular faculty was also very helpful for them. They counseled that law schools need to be attentive to current trends and be mindful of what’s happening in the industry.

The panel as a whole concluded that, in the absence of more structure and direction, students who want to succeed with legal technology need to be very self-directed and highly organized, as well as able to work independently of direct instruction. As a final thought, Amanda Brown expressed the hope that students and faculty will realize that it isn’t just about providing access to justice, but rather giving lawyers a chance to do good things for their community.

In legal tech she sees, as did her fellow panelists, that technology provides an incredible opportunity to “do good”.