Improving and modernizing the state of legal education is on the mind of many legal reformers as law schools are increasingly being called up to change the way they’ve taught students even as the legal profession continues to change around them.
We spoke to Jill Howell-Williams, the Dean of the Moorgate Campus and Associate Professor at the University of Law. She has been involved in legal education for 20 years, prior to which she qualified as a barrister and a solicitor, practicing at what is now Charles Russell Speechlys in London.
Do you think current education is fit to equip students for the modern profession?
I’d turn this question on its head and ask: What does the lawyer of the future need to be like?
My view would be that they should be:
- legally competent with a thorough technical understanding of black letter law;
- able to use efficient processes to get client work completed;
- responsive to their client;
- comfortable with technology;
- open-minded and creative; and
- a good listener.
The question then follows: Does legal education equip students to be this person? A legal education provider such as the University of Law, which offers vocational training, has these outcomes and characteristics at the forefront of its program design.
By its nature, vocational training changes in response to the needs of the profession it serves and can therefore be more innovative than traditional, academic legal education. The links between the profession and vocational training providers makes us better equipped to adapt to the significant disruptions that the traditional business model for the provision of legal services faces.
What are the key things that have changed or arrived which legal educators need to adapt to, or include in their courses?
This is a huge topic. As I see it, the disruptions in the legal services market itself are the same challenges we face as educators.
I’d identify three main areas:
- The commoditization of legal services through technology, removing the necessity for expensive customized or bespoked solutions traditionally provided by a lawyer.
- Law firms are realizing the potential of reaching a new level of productivity. Efficiencies flowing from technology are removing areas of work traditionally carried out by junior lawyers, such as due diligence and document management.
- The break-up of the monopoly of the practice of law by traditional law firms, driven by advances such as chatbots, alternative business structures, the deregulation of legal services and the rise in the number of in-house lawyers, all of which offer consumers of legal services multiple options.
In the short time that we have our students with us — typically no more than nine months — we need to make them aware of these challenges, and also to provide them with a transferable skillset that lets them take advantage of these changes.
These client-facing skills will become increasingly important as technology reshapes the practice of law. Lawyers more than ever before will need to become the trusted advisor, filling in the gaps which technology can’t, and building bridges between processes and products to achieve their clients’ goals.
As a law school we have always focused on these skills (soft and hard) and will continue to develop and refine our thinking around them to reflect what is going on in practice.
What new technologies should we be incorporating?
This question asks what should students know about the new technologies. I think the most important thing we can do as an educator is to make our students inquisitive around the purpose of a legal task.
This requires us to make sure they understand the changes in the legal landscape and, as far as possible, can try out those technologies in practice in the classroom. There are some easy wins here, such as document automation and online legal research. In addition, they need to know about processes such as e–disclosure, online courts, date analytics, AI and machine learning. We need to think about giving them a space to do this while studying, whether by setting up a tech incubator or giving them access to innovative partners like Legal Geek.
At the University of Law, we hosted an exciting legal hackathon for Legal Geek, in collaboration with the judiciary of England and Wales, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Society of Computers and Law, and Richard Susskind, to look at the new online courts being introduced within the next couple of years that will deal with small claims. This gave a number of our students the opportunity to work for 24 hours with coders, designers and other lawyers to come up with technology solutions for the provision of online justice.
Would you like to see changes to the way in which students are assessed?
Students currently studying the Legal Practice Course at the University of Law are assessed using different methods including oral skills assessments, course works, time-based office-quality pieces of work, carrying out legal research, drafting and writing as well as a more conventional suite of invigilated examinations with both multiple-choice and long-form questions.
With the changing processes used by law firms in carrying out their business — like document automation, software-driven legal research and court form preparation — we’ll certainly need to look at how we introduce those processes into our curriculum and learning outcomes.
Are the traditional roles of solicitor, barrister and paralegal adequate for the needs of the modern profession?
Looking forward, my view is that we’ll continue to need all these roles in the profession, but the law firm or barristers’ chambers of the future will also be peopled with lots of new roles, such as legal technologists, project managers and legal consultants.
If we add to the mix agile working and the need for a fluid workforce in a law firm, we should see interesting developments in the provision of legal services in the coming few years.