The future of law schools

A consumer-driven “more-for-less” challenge, a liberalisation of the legal market and new information technologies will cause drastic changes to the legal industry, so an important question arises; are law schools doing enough to prepare the lawyers to-be for that future?

August 31, 2020

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The future of law schools

“Can any responsible lawyer sensibly state with confidence that legal work in 2030 will be much the same as today?” asks Richard Susskind rhetorically in the introduction to his bestselling book The End of Lawyers?. And yet: “It is clear to me that few undergraduate law schools (...) are exposing their students even to the possibility that legal service may be radically different in the future and well within the span of their careers,” the British author continues. If he is right that a consumer-driven “more-for-less” challenge, a liberalisation of the legal market and new information technologies will cause drastic changes to the legal industry, then an important question arises; are law schools doing enough to prepare the lawyers to-be for that future?

Legal Tech Weekly has asked around for some perspectives on the educations of tomorrow's legal professionals.

“If you are starting in law school now, then you will graduate in five years. Within the next five years the market will have developed drastically, and most lawyers will be working with some type of legal tech. So if you are a law graduate who wants to deliver as from day 1 you will have to be familiar with the opportunities of the legal tech market and universities should help you in doing so,” says Jörg Heirman. He is an associate at Ashurst in Brussels and spends his after-hours writing the excellent legal tech blog At the 11th Billable Hour.

In a recent post, the self-proclaimed Generation Y lawyer encourages universities to embrace the digital revolution as quickly as possible. He mentions the IE Law School in Madrid and the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg as notable examples of law schools that have successfully adjusted their curriculum to a future legal market that seems destined to be reshaped by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain. “It is important to learn the basic underlying technology, to know the differences between the technologies on the market and what they are capable of doing. And also what they are not able to do. Having a clear view on the limitations will be equally important,” says Heirman.

He believes that law schools should offer courses in alternative legal disciplines such as legal design, project management, legal tech and even some more commercial, business-oriented courses in order to close the gap between the theory of law that is taught in the ivory tower of academia and how law is practiced outside the universities.

Aligning students and the industry

Heirmans fellow Belgian, the legal hacker and entrepreneur Caroline Calomme, thinks that law schools have a too narrow focus on the lawyer profession. Earlier this year, she published a blog post entitled Law students should hear more about alternative legal careers, where she argues that law schools should at least provide more information on alternative opportunities such as becoming a trial consultant, mediator, compliance specialist, court reporter, software consultants, lobbyist and much more.  

“The reason why I did not want to become a lawyer in the first place was first of all that there are way too many people coming into law school compared to the amount of lawyers that the market really needs,” says Calomme to Legal Tech Weekly. Instead, she is leading - a platform with building blocks that legal professionals can use to create their own online legal services for underserved high volume legal needs. She calls it legal tech as a service.

Calomme does not believe that having a few legal tech courses will do the trick. “If the goal were to train legal tech professionals, it would be a lot faster to teach a computer scientist about law than to train lawyers in IT,” she says, and then elaborates: “There are some attempts on organising legal tech courses and what happens is that the professors then have to bring the industry into the classroom. The other way would be to bring the students to the industry. It has scalability issues, but I am not sure to what extent the theoretical approach would actually fix the legal tech knowledge gap.”  

She thinks that law schools could use a rather comprehensive overhaul: “Many law schools are still based on a model where there is pride in stating that you know the rules by heart. But that doesn't make sense because by the time you graduate the structure might remain the same, but the rules will be different. So does it really make sense to focus so much on the content of the laws? It's debatable,” she stresses. Instead, she thinks that law schools should teach the basic principles of law and then have a more skill oriented focus.

X-factor: The reason we still need lawyers when the robots have entered the legal industry

The future of law schools and courses on legal tech

At the University of Copenhagen, professor in law Henrik Udsen is in charge of a The Digitalisation Hub at the Faculty of Law. The faculty also organises af  Tech&Law Breakfast, has introduced the course How to start a start-up, and also facilitates research groups in legal tech and artificial intelligence.

“We have to focus more on innovation among our students. But there are two kinds of innovation. One is about the legal innovation; to be creative and use the law to find solutions instead of just seeing problems. The other is more product-oriented and deals with legal tech. We are already doing it but I do not think there will be a huge market as there will not be that many of our candidates working in that field. Of course, we have to consider how many need this education. Making it mandatory would be too much, but I think that all our students should at some point during there studies get acquainted with it,” he explains.

He thinks that the digital future should be approached on three different levels: “One is the basic legal skills. There is nothing new here, as all core courses should adapt over time. Liability courses should handle questions of liability when using self-driving cars for example. The next area concerns legal meta-skills. I believe that all students need some basic digital legal skills and a basic understanding of technology: how digitisation works, how the internet is structured and what is an IP-address. That should be mandatory.  Then there is the third area, were some lawyers need a deep and systematic understanding of computational thinking and data management. There is already a big demand for these people, but not everyone should learn this,” says Udsen.

He thinks that law schools should show prudence and not be distracted by the hype: “There are some basic legal skills that lawyers need to have, and they will still be as important and maybe even more important in the future. Everything else will change, but as long as we are talking law, also in a digital context, then it will still be prerequisite that they know about the basic principles of law,” he says.

We can be certain that the legal industry looks a lot different in 2030. Yet we still face an information problem as we do not know exactly what the future is going to look like. So we end up in a methodological quandary equivalent to the Collingridge-dilemma: Should we prepare students for an undeveloped future where we do not know the exact skills required? Or should we wait to see how the future evolves and then risk wasting a few generations of lawyers?

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