A Legal Tech Track in
I recently returned from my Stanford Law School reunion. Among the palm trees and social events were panel discussions about the law that I was anticipating eagerly, especially the one entitled, The Future of Legal Education. So much had happened in the ten years since I graduated at the bottom of my class: Were advances in technology making it easier to study international law in conjunction with law schools abroad? Was technology being used to improve service to clients in law school clinics? With the ease of cyberpublishing, was faculty or student writing breaking beyond the confines of law reviews? How were "cyber-issues" being taught-- incorporated into all courses as they arose, or as separate classes? Were legal research and writing courses--the most practical classes in the school--taught for credit by credentialed professors, or were they still pass/fail trifles taught by those seeking a master's degree in law, whatever that is? Hey, I'd take ANY improvement over the seemingly interminable study of court cases for three years that constituted my legal education. Maybe there was a thriving second-hand book market on the Internet that could allow students to avoid the lines at the book store by ordering online!
But I was sorely disappointed in the discussion. Three eminent law school deans--Dean Kathleen Sullivan of Stanford Law School, Dean Daniel R. Fischel of the University of Chicago School of Law, and Dean Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School, discussed legal education in such an abstract way that I remembered why law school was so dull and, worse, why I felt completely unprepared for the day-to-day reality of the practice of law when I graduated. (Not to mention the immediate, unfamiliar horrors of the bar exam). "Law school should prepare students to think about all aspects of a problem," emphasized the panel. Heck, that's a good goal for a philosophy class. "Law school should create good citizens, who feel their responsibility to improve the legal system in which they work," was another point that came through. Gee whiz, by the time you graduated from law school, thousands of dollars in debt, your main goal was to pay off your debts--if we can't fix that system, how can we hope to improve the vast legal system?
The panelists' discussion then degenerated into whether or not pro bono work should be mandatory--an issue far removed from those doing pro bono work, and without a mention of interesting things happening as pro bono work uses Web technology to facilitate public service, like Pro Bono Net, at www.probono.net.
The dullness and abstraction of the deans' discussion brought home to me how distant the concerns of legal academia were from the problems of those in the field. We can't look to law schools to lead--we must educate the deans.
A Student's Perspective
At some point during law school, usually after our first summer job, almost all of us imagined legal education differently: why didn't we learn more about negotiation, technology and management skills, which seemed to be very important in the practice of law? Why was there so much emphasis on reading court cases, when most cases never ended up in court? Why were legal clinics, which involved interacting with and serving clients, regarded as less prestigious than cite-checking a law review article? Why did we graduate, after three years, knowing so little about anything that most corporate legal departments will not hire recent law school graduates, and most law firms assume new graduates require extensive training?
Chicago litigator Fred Bartlit, who practiced with Kirkland & Ellis for many years before founding his own firm, Bartlit Beck Palenchar & Scott, often joked that law firms had to invest so much in training and education that they should charge tuition to young associates.
Lesson One: Thinking in Teams
Those working with technology are among the people most focussed on the future. Daryl Teshima, a former editor of the magazine Law Office Computing who is now a practice systems attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles, is designing systems to serve the firm's attorneys, both in Los Angeles and with co-counsel in far-flung places. "We are the advocates for the attorneys in all design decisions involving technology," he explains. His advocacy work and experience practicing law is quite helpful, he says, because he knows: "this is the way attorneys work, and so this is the way the tech should work." Of course, problems arise. "But the problems that arise are not so much with the technology," he says. "It was the mind-set of attorneys." Modern technology requires and rewards sharing work, ideas and support. But legal training and the structure of many legal work places are antithetical to cooperation and collaboration. "It's a foreign concept to many," says Mr. Teshima.
Although many people form small study groups in law school, because that was what Harvard students did in the movie 1L, there is little other teamwork involved in law school. Indeed, one of Bartlit Beck's former summer associates, Max Grant, says that one of the most rewarding things he remembers from the firm was the collaborative aspect of the firm's training. "I remember how fun it was to work together as summer associates, doing training together," he says. He now works on technology with the Competition Law Group, at www.competelaw.com.
Technology, in some ways, is the opposite of law. Law looks backwards; technology looks forward. Kingsley Martin, a former tax lawyer who has worked as director of technology and computing strategy at several prestigious law firms, says there were many people at law school who were as "enamored" with technology as he was. "It's cutting-edge, it's fun, it's fast moving," he says. But he had no outlet for his interest--like many legal technologists, Mr. Martin is wholly self-taught in technology. One of the things he likes best about technology is its collaborative aspect. "Pulling together technology for a project or a case requires a supportive environment, and you're always part of a team," he says. Law school, which can reward grand- standing classroom participation, can be antithetical to working in a hierarchical legal environments. "Coming on too strong is a flaw," cautions Mr. Martin. "The partners are the owners of the business. You can't say, 'Thou shalt use the greatest gizmo.' If one gray-haired person doesn't want something, everyone else falls into line." When he presents his ideas to a law firm's managing committee, he uses all his advocacy skills. "It's a matter of forging relationships within the firm," he says. "It's really just the opportunity to learn, to grow and ultimately deliver something of value to the firm." These relationship skills are critical to client development, thriving in any work environment, and dealing with courts and administrative agencies. But little of this is even mentioned in law school.
Change is Painful
Those trying to change the first-year curriculum face severe criticism. (You are dealing with lawyers, after all.) Last spring, the University of Chicago Law School announced a new course for first year students, called Technology, Innovation and Society intended to replace one of two quarters of criminal law. The required first-year curriculum had not changed since the early 1960s. The class would be the first "forward-looking" course in the first-year curriculum. The response?
Outrage. Almost two hundred students signed a petition of protest. The Law Students Association sent a letter opposing that such an enormous change was made without consulting students. (Since when are students consulted about the first-year curriculum?) Alumni weighed in. (Since when do alumni care about the first-year curriculum?) Two members of the faculty complained publicly, in a newspaper article. Their perspective may have been colored by the fact that they taught criminal law, but their views may reflect many faculty members' fears: that the Internet is going to replace the Constitution. The Constitution does come up in a class called Constitutional Law, however.
(By the way, I practiced criminal law as a public defender with Legal Aid in Manhattan. Little I learned in criminal law school classes was particularly useful, and, since I'd studied it in first year, I had forgotten anything that hadn't appeared on the bar exam. I wish I'd taken more law school clinics, which would have helped me deal with clients and difficult supervisors. And, because the office technology was hopelessly out of date, we had to supply our own laptops--my education could have used a small component on "how to buy a laptop." )
The University of Chicago has gone ahead with its course, which introduces cyber topics intellectual property, antitrust and industry regulation. Most students don't get those topics until the second year--what a gift to the first year students. (I wish Chicago's law school dean of Chicago had talked about this when he was on that panel at my Stanford reunion). It sounds as if the school was trying to do something new and innovative, but failed to consult with faculty, or invite any feedback from alumni or students, and that's where they got into trouble. See--a lot of problems arise when lawyers don't communicate well. It's all about working in teams. If they taught more about technology, they would have known that.