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Who should teach legal tech?

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Training in legal technology is gradually finding its way into law schools, even outside the English-speaking world. Still, we need to remain realistic. No matter how progressive they are, law schools offering these courses are the exception and not the rule. The truth is that the large majority of law graduates start their career without an introduction to legal technology and that very few practising lawyers had a chance to learn about this subject at all during their student years.

This means that, in an average legal department or law firm, probably only a handful of lawyers know what it is about unless they carry out research using their own initiative, i.e. during their “free” time and at their own cost, or they are encouraged to do so by managing partners or a Chief Legal Officer from an older generation. So, wouldn’t those organisations be interested in legal tech-savvy hires?

Being against the introduction of legal technology training for students as a matter of principle only makes sense for universities in a few instances. Namely, if the universities believe that students with this knowledge will not be an advantage in the hiring process or that it is not the university’s role to improve the employability of their legal graduates. In fact, if it is not the role of law schools to train students in legal practice, why organise moot courts, legal clinics or skill courses? Stressing the need to gain academic skills in law school rather than practical skills could even promote the introduction of a legal technology curriculum, since case law network analysis and other technology-enabled techniques can be powerful research methods.

Beyond the fundamental policy discussion on legal technology education, we must acknowledge that educational institutions face obstacles that the business world may underestimate.

– Administrative burdens: How to obtain the required accreditations? How to add a course to the curriculum without having to cancel another one? If it is an optional course, are there enough lecture rooms to welcome the students?

– Recruitment: Could a current staff member teach the course(s)? If the decision is made to involve a professor from the computer science or business faculty, how to deal with the interfaculty budgetary hurdles? And, if it is necessary to hire new staff members, what background should (s)he have? Should it be someone from the private sector? How to remunerate them?

– Content: While there seems to be an agreement that law schools should not teach how to use legal tech tools as such, what about creating or inventing them? Should it be an introductory course to technology and innovation, leaving it to the students to link this knowledge to their substantive legal courses? Or should it cover key topics in legal technology such as document automation, network analysis, legal design, natural language processing, etc.?

While universities are best suited to impact future generations across all legal professions, we should not forget that in the short term many active legal professionals are still left behind. The hurdles above also show that legal practitioners might to some extent be in a better position than universities to organise training, who are able to focus on content relevant to the market, and most importantly, to the clients that they are serving. It is a tricky argument though because currently most universities leave this task to law firms, which more often than not decide not to invest in the topic. This is why young generations of lawyers discretely express the willingness to innovate but are lacking the background knowledge to make a case in front of the more conservative management.

Until more universities and law firms make a move, it would not be surprising to see an increase in companies specialising in legal technology training. They would meet a growing demand for the group of self-learning legal professionals and for the organisations who support this learning track but cannot yet offer a career development track internally.

Who should be trained? How? When? In what specifically? We can host panels, meetings and workshops to argue with each other and get it perfectly right – after all, that is how we were trained. Alternatively, we can try the lean approach and experiment by starting small, using what is already available and collaborating.

For example, my legal tech startup Sket.io works together with the KU Leuven law school in Belgium to teach students how to identify variable and non-variable fields in legal documents and how to draft documents in a computer-friendly format to automate them. Luckily, there are many ways to challenge the status quo:

  • Choose a law school with a course on legal technology
  • Apply to a law firm with a legal technology strategy
  • Invite IT students or your IT team for drinks, coffee or lunch and ask questions about their world
  • Partner with legal technology companies or firms with legal technology services to offer internships
  • Allow students to enrol in courses at the computer science faculty
  • Sign study abroad agreements with universities offering legal tech courses
  • Share a list of free online courses and resources on legal technology
  • Organise an ideation session, a service design session or a hackathon
  • Share a list of free online courses and resources on legal technology
  • Explain useful legal concepts to developers in exchange for a basic introduction to programming

As a final thought, the decision to train or not to train (future) lawyers should perhaps not entirely be up to universities and the private sector. Do we really want a society where professional qualifications to protect and defend legal rights are awarded without guaranteeing sufficient awareness of the available technological solutions? Without this knowledge, it could be difficult to act in the best interest of your clients, a fiduciary obligation in the legal profession.

By Caroline Calomme (@CarolineCalomme), Brussels Legal Hackers community founder & Sket.io co-founder.

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