Educating the Digital Lawyer

by Paul Maharg on 15/10/2010

Long hiatus — got caught up in writing deadlines gridlock which I'm still not clear of.  Plus I'm uneasy with the direction that Typepad are taking their blogging software (too commercial for me) and am looking for alternatives, probably WordPress, combining this with a more substantial site with publications etc.  Still planning that.  Meanwhile, am in Harvard Law School for the FutureEd Conference, more of which tomorrow, and today's outing, the Educating the Digital Lawyer workshop, hosted by The Law Lab, a project of the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society.  More on this below the fold.

Five people gave brief presentations after introductions, and this was followed by general discussion.  

David Blaszkowsky, SEC
What David was saying about XBRL being the business form of XML, and that it is important for law students to be able to understand the concepts underlying such ways of creating, analysing, understanding XBRL documents was very interesting.  Eg securities, or a a cash flow, assets (which themselves may have cash flows) – how will our law students get to understand this?  How will they understand the underlying concepts, ie the schema, ontology, taxonomy?  Indeed how do our students understand this data at all?  Or FPML – Financial Product Marketing Language – see  Marc Lauritsen (workshop organiser — many thanks Marc…) asked him who was actually teaching this – David suggested Berkman might know, but didn’t have a direct answer to that.  Nevertheless an interesting idea, and one that we need to take on board in our legal curricula.  David suggested a ‘common core’ solution to understand the concepts – he wasn’t asking for a Com Sci course, simply an understanding of the conceptual matter, and its implications.  In the discussion that followed some very interesting points made.  David’s points were put into the jurisprudential context.  The Langdellian revolution, said Oliver in a very interesting aside, was only made possible by the technological revolution in the nineteenth century of good cheap books that could increase exponentially in size.

Brian Donnelly, Columbia Law School
Brian Donnelly, next up, described his course in Columbia, Lawyering in the Digital Age – see  He also described the markup initiative.  His course has lectures eg on metadata, how does google work, casemap, etc.  Then students go out in the field and help to build online services for clients, eg housing law.  Collateral Consequences Calculator – broke the Penal Code of NY into consequences of certain actions. Allows you to see, eg, who might be deported for which crimes, etc.  Fascinating example.  Another, formed at the request of a Chief Judge – there are around 2,000 courts across the NY state called Town & Village Courts, 70% of judges are not lawyers – they built a fundamental legal educational system that would educate such Justices. 

Ron Staudt, Chicago Kent College of Law
He reported that around 80% of legal needs of the poor is unmet.  How is that addressed in law schools?  Often it’s done using the experience & enthusiasm of law schools and students.  The rise of the clinic, in part with Ford Foundation funds, in the seventies & eighties is a product of that.  Maybe 2-4 million hours per annum, over the period '66-'76 were devoted to the legal needs of the poor.  Legal Aid Services provided innovation funds for online delivery, repetitive services, etc.  There was also a front-end to HotDocs designed & implemented.  Massive services, in the order of hundreds of thousands of documents.  Ron is trying to get his students to understand all this background, as well as the practice of law for people, and the increasingly complex social and technological context; students then begin to build objects that will help in this endeavour.  He is currently looking for funding to make this a major initiative, rather like the original Ford funding initiative. 

Oliver Goodenough, Vermont Law School
 Took us through an interesting course, called ‘Digital Drafting’, which was actually much more than that, including document assembly, disruptive business models, public sector issues, tagging, SEC & XBRL, broadband, e-discovery, practitioner examples, ethics. Very interesting stuff. Great model for an options module.

Ron commented that Oliver’s course + Brian’s course were excellent examples of what needed to be done. 

Larry Farmer, Brigham Young U Law School
Probably the educationalist with the longest experience in the room of working with digital products and legal education.  He described the evolution of his course.  Originally an estate planning tool, he planned and then designed with WestLaw then Lexis the CAPS then HotDocs environment.  His course sat beside this – problem-solving using technology.  He found that when lawyers invest in technology, there was more often than not a durability to that investment.  This course helped students to change the trajectory of their careers.  Eg students who built bankruptcy hotdocs systems in Texas, and who maintain them to this day.  The course also tried to turn students into perceptive consumers of technology, as well as potential designers of technological solutions. 

Did it take on?  Not really.  Still – there were a core of 4-20 each year at Larry’s School (BYU). Students would often be easily hired, but would then get caught up in the practice of law and disappear from designing. Then Larry realised that this is perfect for DL – it’s project-based, taught by a small number of instructors who know it well – and this is what he is working on now. In discussion, he thought it was largely the supply of good instructors that was the problem in making things improve faster.

David Johnson, NY Law School
He argued against a teacher-centred curriculum, advocating instead students exploring in an open landscape.  Two courses: Tech Law Lab – team based learning, based on projects.  Not clinic client, but paying customer, and designing technological solutions, eg designing regulatory commenting systems.  Certificate of Law Mastery Technology – students distinguish themselves in the job as tech-savvy lawyers.

I was asked by Marc to describe the SIMPLE approach, which I did.  Stephanie Kimbro a virtual lawyer working off her laptop, described her approach – she described a virtual practice that was hugely flexible and more enjoyable than normal practice.  She talked of virtual lawyers who outsourced their services to a variety of law firms – which was useful re multi-state matters.  She interviewed her clients online and securely, using client intake forms; she made use of unbundled legal services.  Re insurance, the insurers stated she would be treated no differently than other lawyers.  Clark asked about which areas of law were amenable to this: planning law, estate planning, IP, transactional areas were some she mentioned.  Access to justice?  She agreed emphatically: it met unmet needs. 

In the general discussion that followed, each person at the workshop was asked for what they wanted to see in the digital curriculum.  Ideas included relations with the cloud – what is it, what does it entail re privacy & security; project management; some idea of where technology is going; history of the internet and its tools; basic info tech literacy; client-based knowledge; knowledge management; project management; granularity of information on the internet, eg of XML contractual clauses; collaboration; online client communication care and skills associated with that; wiki pages.  I responded with three types of learning: transactional, experiential, ethical.  


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