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Are Law Schools Finally Waking Up to the Demand for Legal Tech Training?

While members of the millennial cohort now passing through US law schools may be more comfortable with technology than their predecessors, their legal futures (and those of their clients) would be a lot brighter if their law schools were, too—but there are signs of hope.

Most companies today know that, aside from their employees, their data and technology are likely the most valuable (and riskiest) assets they have. If their law firms have not integrated this reality into their legal perspective, they are shortchanging their clients. And if their future lawyers are not being prepared for that same reality, their law schools are shortchanging them.

The legal realm, wed as it is to precedent, can no longer afford the luxury of slow evolution. The impact and repercussions of technology and AI will only grow in importance, and law schools that fail to educate their students about the resulting strategic, logistical, and ethical challenges could rightly be considered negligent.

So, to what degree are law schools evolving to meet these challenges?

A team at Michigan State University led by law professor Daniel W. Linna, Jr. is taking steps to find out.  Professor Linna is director of MSU Law’s LegalRnD program, which trains students in leveraging the benefits of technology and nontraditional workflows. Motivated by a suggestion by Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation, that change could be accelerated if law firms were ranked on their use of technology and innovative workflow instead of revenue or profit, Professor Linna and his team set out to collect data that could provide such information about law firms, with a similar prototype for law schools. First round results can be found in the Legal Services Innovation Index.

An Index of Tech Sophistication

Although in its infancy, the Index is enlightening and does present some hopeful signs.  So far, it includes assessments of 260 law firms and 40 of the 200+ US law schools, assessing firms for their legal innovation and technology adoption and law schools for their capacity to educate students about 21st century legal service delivery—as well as the legal, regulatory and ethical issues raised by technology adoption. (The survey team cautions against using its data as yet to formally rank law schools, but the data enable a rough differentiation between schools with depth in technology education versus those lacking such content.)

Some of the schools that have emerged as leaders in the teaching of legal innovation and technology aren’t necessarily those found at the top of traditional academic rankings. Among those with at least 8 innovation and tech related disciplines in their curricula include Michigan State University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Suffolk University Law School, University of Miami Law School, and Vermont Law School.

Course content has evolved to include complete classes on topics such as ePractice Management and eDiscovery (taught at 28 of the MSU-surveyed schools), as well as shorter “inserts” (abbreviated course segments, taught by specialist instructors) that are folded into classes like Contract Law and Wills and Trusts.  Thirty-six of the 40 surveyed schools offer “Law and Cybersecurity” courses, not surprising (and somewhat comforting) given the assault on data security that seems to make headlines almost daily. Other “Law and…” courses include Artificial Intelligence (21 schools) and Blockchain (5).  Computational Law is an increasingly common offering.

Some law schools have distinguished themselves by hosting centers or institutes focused on legal technology or by committing themselves to providing a strong tech-focused grounding in their JD or LLM concentrations, all hopeful signs that the tide is changing. At Vermont Law School, for example, Professor Oliver R. Goodenough and his colleagues are working to distinguish the school as a leader in educating future attorneys in legal technology. The school scores in the top 10 in the Law School Index, including in its curriculum courses such as eDiscovery, Cybersecurity, Computational Law, and Data Analytics.

“Any litigator needs to know the basics of eDiscovery,” Goodenough says. “Even if they’re not going to participate directly in eDiscovery, they need to know the best ways to interact with the vendor. They need to understand the algorithmic basis of predictive coding, because they will have to explain their use of it to opposing counsel and to Judges.”  Professor Jeannette Eicks, who teaches the course in Cybersecurity at the Law School notes a challenge becoming all too common: “We’re trying to shoehorn laws from the 1930’s into the cyber world.”

A New Differentiator

How law schools treat innovation and technology as a component of their curriculum will be driven by the demands of the law firms who hire new graduates; the law firms, in turn, will be driven by the demands of their clients who are facing tech disruption in their own worlds. Banks and financial service companies, for example, increasingly have to contend with  creative disruption in their markets by upstart financial technology (“fintech”) companies. These companies insist, and rightly so, that their legal counsel understand how their industries are impacted by digitalization so as to help them strategize for the future. Similar demands will be forthcoming in any number, if not most, industry verticals.

The incorporation of innovation and technology into legal education is not a “nice to have.” It’s an imperative. It may not happen as fast as it could, because the “move fast and break things” ethic that drives the tech start-up world is just not the way lawyers usually work. But it had better happen faster or tomorrow’s lawyers will quickly become yesterday’s news.

H5 is a strong believer in legal education, especially when it relates to the use of technology. Learn about our CLE offerings here.


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