Disintermediation in law schools

by Paul Maharg on 14/04/2016

Now in Canberra, at the National Law Reform Conference being held in ANU, 14-15 April.  Some great papers.  This morning I heard my colleague Vivien Holmes on her work on legal ethics, and embedding it within legal education; Justine Rogers on teamwork, presenting both sides of the debate, massively referenced, and raising key issues about the development of ethical understanding in teams; and Adrian Evans, asking hard questions about regulation and ethics.

In the second session Margaret Thornton made intriguing and forceful suggestions about streamed curricula, in the process entirely cutting our ties with the Priestley 11.  Craig Collins critiqued the concept of Ramism in our current curricula, revealing the ways in which our understanding of the common law curriculum is defined by Renaissance models of Ramist textual understanding, and the powerful effects of that upon our learning designs even now.   Nick James‘s critiqued the law school on loss of doctrinal rigour, loss of curricular breadth, over-emphasis upon extrinsic motivation, and the favouring of the social and political status quo.  He differentiated between vocational approaches and professionalism, and argued for a re-definition of the latter; and advocated that we do so by hijacking the concept of vocationalism.  Entirely agree, and have said so myself, re-defining professionalism from a Deweyan perspective in a chapter from the second Beyond Text volume, The Moral Imagination and the Legal Life entitled ‘Associated life’: democratic professionalism and the moral imagination

My own presentation in this session was on disintermediation in law schools — a version of the article published recently in The Law Teacher.  Slides up on the Slides tab above, and on Slideshare.  Abstract below:

Disintermediation is a concept well-understood in almost all industries.  At its simplest, it refers to the process by which intermediaries in a supply chain are eliminated, most often by digital re-engineering of process and workflow.  It can often result in streamlined processes that lay claim to being more customer-focused, though this is a contentious and highly complex cultural and economic issue.  It can also result in the destruction of almost entire industries and occupations, and the re-design of many aspects of customer and client-facing activity.  To date, legal education in particular has not given much attention to the process.  In this paper I explore some of the theory that has been constructed around the concept.  I then examine some of the consequences that disintermediation is having upon our teaching and learning, and on our research into legal education, both as part of the general landscape of digital media churn and as part of the discourse of the rapidly evolving debate on what constitutes higher education.  Finally I show how we might co-opt aspects of the process in three case studies that are, effectively, versions of the future of legal education.

What I’m arguing for is much more activity in this sphere in the law school, not just in understanding it, but in taking steps to avoid being disintermediated ourselves.  When was the last time you had a staff or student meeting addressing the issue?  And yet it affects almost every aspect of our working lives in law school.  Before ending with three case studies, I put forward some practical reasons why we might want to give the subject more attention:

  • Significant shift towards apomediation in staff, curriculum, student learning
  • Threat to law school economics from competition among law schools
  • Major threat to independence from corporate publishers:
    –Cost of journal subscriptions
    –Corporate capture of our learning / teaching systems
    –Corporate capture of digital learning content

I’d be liveblogging the conference in full, but I have wall2wall meetings tomorrow, having just arrived back in ANU.  My thanks to the organising committee Ron Levy, Simon Rice, Peta Spender, Lauren Butterly Tony Foley, Molly O’Brien and Pauline Ridge for a great conference.

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