The Future of Law Schools: Law Schools Shaking Up Curriculum to Focus on Technology, Panel Says

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Efficiency, Government, Law Firms, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Executive Events, Legal Innovation, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The blame for the slow pace of change in the legal industry has often been placed at the feet of law schools, but a panel of law school deans and professors pushing for change in legal education and the delivery of legal services shed light on some of positives that were happening.

Members of the panel, titled Brave New World: Advancing Educational Reform around Legal Technology, described the exciting changes in curriculum and approach at their law schools and discussed why they are strongly focusing on technology as a solution. The panel was part of the Legal Executive Institute‘s The Future of Law Schools conference, held in Washington, D.C. earlier this month.

“Corporate clients don’t want to spend money on attorneys who treat every legal problem as unique and bespoke and just chew around the edges.”

— Tanina Rostain

Tanina Rostain, professor of law and co-director of the Center for Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law School, said that a few years ago the school noticed they had been offering a series of classes — more than 50 — where technology was an important element. School leaders realized that if attorneys wanted to participate in legal and policy discussions that involve technology, they needed to be conversant with that technology. “You can’t really participate in privacy-related conversations unless you know something about facial recognition software, or think about what the armed services is doing with drones without legal and technical knowledge,” said Rostain. Georgetown Law then built a technology law scholars program, in addition to establishing a technology law review to explain complicated technology in ways other lawyers can understand.

However, these courses are not designed for incoming law students with technology backgrounds, noted Illinois Tech-Chicago Kent Law School Associate Professor Daniel M. Katz, adding that it would be great to work with such students but they’re not always applying. So, Katz said he has to work with the army he has while building the one he wants. “I can’t just show up in someone’s living room like Nick Saban trying to recruit,” he said.

But other panelists suggested incoming students do not need pre-existing technology skills. For example, Georgetown’s program is intentionally not designed for self-professed “techies” but for the larger population that doesn’t know how to code. Students with technology backgrounds cannot even enroll in the law school’s computer programming for lawyers course, but can serve as teaching assistants.

Georgetown Law’s Rostain predicted that law schools may start to see more applicants from students with technical backgrounds, as they begin to see how their background is relevant to legal education.

“The financial crisis may be the best thing that ever happened to legal education and legal practice — if you care about making the product better.”

— Daniel M. Katz

The approach by Georgetown and the other law schools to incorporate more technology skills into their curriculum is paying off for both the schools and their students. Law school admission applications are up — both in quality and quantity, observed Joseph Harroz, Jr., Dean of the College of Law and Director of the Law Center (as well as vice president of the university) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. If you’re going to innovate in a space where there hasn’t been much innovation in the last 100 years, Harroz added, you have to create a real value proposition that customers want.

Gabriel H. Teninbaum, Professor of Legal Writing, Director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology & Innovation and the Director of the Law Practice Technology Concentration at Suffolk University Law School, agreed and added that he can’t supply needed graduates fast enough for employers. In fact, only about half a dozen law schools in the United States can provide employers with attorneys with these skills, so traditional large law firms, smaller firms with aging partners in need of a succession plan, and even legal technology startups are snapping up students with technology and coding skills, Teninbaum said.

Harroz noted that students graduating from the Oklahoma Law program — who receive a free iPad if they take 3 credit hours of technology training, but on average take 7.5 hours — are often capable of using technology in much more advanced ways than practicing attorneys. These students go on to work in law firms, nonprofits and open solo law firms, he added.

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The panel went on to discuss how technology has become central to changes in legal practice today and lends itself well to the mindset that corporate clients want to see in their counsel. “Corporate clients don’t want to spend money on attorneys who treat every legal problem as unique and bespoke and just chew around the edges,” said Rostain, adding that clients want lawyers who can find category-based solutions and be more cost-effective rather than solving problems one at a time.

Katz agreed that the generalist age of practicing law is over, explaining that he has a romantic notion of lawyers today. “They can be the problem-solvers of the 21st century, but they cannot do it without technology skills,” he said.

Echoing another panelist who observed that the Great Recession has forced law schools into making changes and consider a wide array of strategies to better prepare students for practice today, Katz concurred that “the financial crisis may be the best thing that ever happened to legal education and legal practice — if you care about making the product better.”