The Effects of Technology on Legal Education and Practice

Students in their final year of secondary education are provided with a few options in regards to the teaching mechanisms used by universities in legal studies. With the introduction of new technologies in the legal profession, universities may have to introduce new skills training for their undergraduates. The more conventional model of teaching can be described with the traditional structure of lectures and seminars, all geared towards examinations. Conversely, students are presented with the option of problem-based learning, a method usually used by medical faculties within universities such as Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (Queen Mary University London).

The University of York has demonstrated a strong emphasis on utilising problem-based learning in their law school. This more modern style of teaching has provided students with a fairly advanced outlook on legal education. For example; twice a week, students within structured student law firms are presented with material that contains unknown legalities and concepts. Students are then expected to carry out research on the matter and derive information from legal sources. Granted that this is a similar simulation to legal practice within law firms, it may not be enough for future lawyers to remain equipped for the increasing competition in the job market. Graduates are faced with the very real prospect of competing against artificial intelligence systems as law firms increasingly begin to integrate “legal tech” into their operations. This is applicable to universities that follow the traditional model of legal education as well, but problem-based learning will be used as the prime example, due to its contemporary nature.

Speaking from personal experience, the use of technology in problem-based learning has been very prominent. Yet, it is mostly used for practical purposes, and there has been no urgency to teach about the technical tools that are currently being used in firms in London and around the world. It is true that there are voluntary opportunities for undergraduate students to delve into legal technology, but is it enough? 

Large law firms in London and around the world have integrated or have begun integrating artificial intelligence into their operations. Most notably, Clifford Chance has worked with Kira Systems, using Kira’s software in contract review. The system provided an accuracy figure of around 90%. However, it still needs lawyers to carry out quality control in order to fulfill the desirable accuracy figure which is closer to 100%. Kira can be used to cater to clients’ needs when reviewing contracts and documents.

The accuracy of the systems such as Kira is impressive. The capabilities of legal tech will continue to increase and become more reliable and practical as the field advances. Such forefront technology usually comes as an enigma to students, as it is mostly only mentioned in networking events, with little to no depth in its description. As law firms continue to advance their technological capabilities, legal tech is progressively being integrated into training contract programmes. For example, Dentons has launched a new initiative for it’s training contracts, with modules stressing on commercial awareness including innovative technology like AI. This leaves most undergraduates wondering whether or not they should be familiar with the frequently mentioned technologies.

According to Mr. Joachim Fleury, the Head of the Telecommunications, Media & Technology (TMT) practice at Clifford Chance, it is essential for universities to begin introducing their students to technologies like Kira from the get-go.

“ Anyone who aims to practice law will need to be able to work with tools like Kira, and… we will need people with a background in the law and its practice to shape the next generation AI tools.”

Mr. Fleury also acknowledges that if universities were to introduce legal tech to their students through incorporating it into their degree programmes, it will allow developers and firms to bridge the gap between legal practitioners, and the coders of programs such as Kira:-

 “ Getting a younger generation of law students and legal practitioners involved in the development of software applications right from the beginning, should produce a whole new range of much more powerful tools in the next few years.”

Dr Dimitrios Tsarapatsanis from the York Law School agrees:

“My view is that more than just one module is needed – the curriculum needs to become more friendly to subjects which, in my opinion, will become a necessary part of a ‘toolkit’ not just of lawyers in the future, such as basic knowledge of statistics and of a range of digital social sciences.”

Although the future holds promising prospects for students and legal practitioners alike in the realm of legal tech, can the higher education sector cater to such needs?

Professor Scott Slorach, the Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of York Law School, believes so. Law schools across the UK have been developing and implementing legal tech modules. For example, the York Law School introduced ‘Legal Practice, Technology & Computer Science’ as an option for undergraduates since the start of the 2018/2019 academic year from last year. The program hosts students from both the Law and Computer Science course, and is sponsored by Norton Rose Fullbright’s Technology and Innovation team. York’s practical approach to learning has also been applied to this module as students are expected to develop apps as part of the module should they choose to be a part of the programme.

According to Professor Slorach, numerous universities who have also taken the initiative in establishing the link between law and tech are the University of Durham, Manchester, Dundee, Swansea, and the Queen’s University Belfast, but some have maintained an academic approach to teaching it.

“University law schools either have or are capable of developing learning on law and technology for students.

Furthermore, Professor Slorach emphasized that this can only be achieved if; students are able to understand the material that legal technology like Kira is used for, and to understand why the AI is being used initially.

“Without this fuller understanding, the risk is that students simply learn about ‘what’ is happening in law firms at a surface level, and do not have the deeper “applied” understanding, which is necessary if they are, when working in a firm, to be able to both use and contribute to the further development of technology within their practice.”

Naturally, graduates are expected to understand their area of practice, but new sectors of law require a new set of skills. The future holds a hopeful outlook in terms of the response of universities and academics in ensuring graduates possess the necessary skills, but it is yet to be seen at a large scale.

In fact, Dr. Tsarapatsanis believes that the current curriculum (LLB in this instance) would not require a drastic change, but new skills will have to be taught, even at the minimum level.

What does this mean for students?

As students, it is natural to feel threatened by the growing popularity of such technologies, as it may seem to pose additional hurdles to an already competitive field. Nevertheless, the approach universities are progressively adopting is reassuring. Law schools throughout the UK are beginning to make changes to their degree programs to better prepare their students for a legal market where legal software and programming will become a prevalent aspect of their operations. In the not so distant future, we may find that courses on legal technology will no longer be optional. There is little doubt that our generation will include pioneers in legal tech. In the near future, all universities will inevitably have to incorporate legal tech in their curriculums. But this should not be viewed with hostility or fear. In the words of Mr. Fleury, “technology is only an enabler.” As technology reaches new horizons, so shall we.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Rand alhourani

    Great approach…well done

  2. Samer S Khaddour

    Great article, very interesting.

  3. Alan Smith

    Some fascinating information here, I’ve certainly learned a great deal from reading the article, thank you. I’m still convinced that the best skilled workers have a strong, almost intimate connectivity with their subject, and ultimately, their clients/customers.

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