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Law education responding to technology

28 July 2016 - By Nick Butcher

The days of a lawyer being surrounded by a tide of paper case files have been receding as practising law modernises and cements its foot firmly in the digital 21st Century.

What the legal sector is going through perhaps echoes in similarity that of the media profession which has had to embrace digital journalism, resulting in the slow death of many staple diet newspapers that were the lifelong muse of hungry news junkies.

But the drive for the use of more technology in law shouldn’t be viewed as a death knell to the traditional and conservative forms of practising law. Perhaps it should rather be seen as the essential new tools that will make the job much more efficient and effective.

While nothing will really change in the way the fundamental principles of law are taught by universities, educators agree that they cannot avoid changing the way some other important aspects of preparing lawyers for the outside world are carried out.

Screenshot of ROSS software

Most people in the legal sector have now heard of ROSS – the artificially intelligent attorney or right-hand robot that can assist in legal research.

ROSS probably isn’t about to replace lawyers in a courtroom any time soon but such technology could lead to a revolutionised sector, and possibly a few less overworked lawyers.

How does the College of Law view the future of lawyering with the advent of technology?

Legal professionals provider The College of Law says the biggest changes to what law students are being taught will be in postgraduate study, not in the core Bachelor of Laws degree.

Photo of Lewis Patrick
Chief Academic Officer Lewis Patrick

Chief Academic Officer Lewis Patrick says the primary purpose of the Bachelor of Laws degree is to educate future lawyers in the fundamentals of the law, not so much on the practice of law.

“Most undergraduate degrees receive criticism from the profession that they don’t do enough to teach practical skills to their students, which I think is unfair because a university has limited time and resources and there is a lot to teach in terms of just knowledge of the law.

“And Professional Legal Studies – a short postgraduate course that aims to give practical legal training to university law graduates – has that corner covered,” he says.

But one thing is set to change, he says, in that virtually every undergraduate degree will include an altered module of legal research skills.

“I think over the next few years you’ll see that becoming more about legal technology skills,” he says. “It used to be done with dusty old law books but that has now moved online.”

Changes to the practical side of legal education

Mr Patrick says there’ll need to be changes in the postgraduate Master of Laws.

“I think you’ll see a lot more courses in how to use legal applications.

“Lawyers will also need training in how to actually build legal applications for the firms they work for. They’ll need to know how to create information architecture, so that their own clients can access the firm’s website and use these tools to find out the information they need.”

Mr Patrick says it is in the practical side of law where the differences in postgraduate courses will be noticed.

“You’ll see a lot more courses and programmes around legal applications and how to use them as they’re rolled out in time,” he says.

Mr Patrick predicts that because of the arrival of digital technology tools to law, it’ll lead to stiff competition between competing lawyers over who can offer the best experience for clients.

“That will include online as well as face-to-face. Lawyers are going to need to know how to present their services and information in online ways and they’re going to have to learn to collaborate with other professionals to solve a client’s problems.

Problem-solving by a lawyer in the interest of the client

“Up until now the lawyer has done that alone. Increasingly what you’ll find is the lawyer will have to collaborate with other professionals to solve the problem so lawyers are going to need training and education in collaborative skills, project management, work flow systems, how to work as part of a team. There’ll be a big need to include this in postgraduate training.”

Comparing the television experience from the black and white 1960s to now, Mr Patrick says the future of law is heading towards a similar evolution.

“TV now includes multiple news channels, movies and applications such as Netflix. Television is still television but the consumer is experiencing it differently 50 years later, but it’ll be more like five years for how people experience changes in law service delivery,” he says.

In September Mr Patrick will travel to Washington to attend the IBA Commoditisation of Legal Practice and the Implications for Legal Education Conference.

How are universities responding to the winds of change in legal education?

Photo of Mark Hickford
Professor Mark Hickford

The Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law
at Victoria University, Professor Mark Hickford says there have already been some adjustments in case law for students in areas such as Privacy and Cyber Law because of the Internet.

But he is cautious of knee-jerk reactions to the growing move towards technology in law.

“The thing to remember about a law degree is it is not driven by idiosyncratic developments that occur in the world, but develops critical ways of thinking about them so, in a sense, the training that is occurring is in how one thinks, analyses or narrates problems, including new ones that emerge,” he says.

He says students are adequately prepared for the changes they could encounter in the legal sector.

“We’re exploring in terms of our moot room space, how it might better reflect the realities of the District Court across the road from our law school.

“The District Court is reducing time costs and stress on people in the court process with the use of audio visual technology. We’ve looked into this and how it works and are looking at incorporating this technology into our moot room so that students will leave law school understanding the current work environment of a law firm or the courts,” he says.

Professor Hickford says law tends to be a follower of developments in technology.

“But in saying that, it has to be cautious it doesn’t become a hostage to fortune – in other words that it doesn’t narrow itself unwittingly by thinking that something that is developing now effectively is the way it might be permanently in five to 10 years’ time.

“Technology that is content driven can quickly become outdated so we need to ensure our students are flexible and adaptable,” he says.

AUT holds a similar view

Photo of Charles Rickett
Professor Charles Rickett

At Auckland University of Technology, the Bachelor of Laws and honours degrees are still young, as they were introduced in 2009.

The Dean of Law, Professor Charles Rickett says there have been no dramatic changes there linked to information technology.

“We’re not really worried about training people for the purpose of using IT or coping with it. We are more interested in the ideas about the law that people need to think about and how they translate that into their own particular ethos or milieu. When they find themselves at the coal face technologically is a matter for them really,” he says.

Mr Rickett teaches second year contract law and unlike in the old days where hard copies of case studies were provided, now students are directed to investigate and study the digitised cases, legislation and related articles themselves.

“I’ve told them, part of their legal education is to become familiar with the digitised versions of the material they need to know about, so I suppose in a sense that’s a change that has been brought about by the readily available databases,” he says.

Drawing from contract law, he says when it comes to Internet and cyber law, the basic rules for dealing with these issues are still the same and while there are elective courses available on these subjects, they’re not a major component of the four-year law degree.

“I don’t think there is a lot to be gained by approaching the subject from the technological end as opposed to the principles of law end.

“Internet commerce is basically the application of contractual rules in an Internet framework, but the basic rules are still the same. So as long as my students are aware of what the basic structure of the law of contract is they should be able to answer questions that arise from digital milieu,” he says.

Professor Rickett says situations such as defamation on the Internet would be no different to dealing with defamation in a newspaper where the fundamental principles of law would apply.

Like Professor Hickford, he says there is no need for a knee-jerk reaction to technological issues in law.

“It’s not just technology in law, it’s across the whole spectrum. We see it all the time in politics such as the housing crisis where across the board we see a range of ill-thought-out policies by collective politicians. When dealing with a legal situation, you need to sit down, give it some careful thought and consideration for the consequences of whatever approach you come up with.

“With law there is a danger that we get to the point where we can work up quick answers to problems that aren’t really problems and we tend to throw out the old learning and we create new sorts of problems which could create a greater cost,” he says.

Will ROSS make some lawyers unemployed?

There’s a 1999 movie starring the late Robin Williams entitled The Bicentennial Man, about an android that aspires to become a human as it gradually acquires human emotions.

So could art eventually imitate the real life of a lawyer?

Professor Rickett says at most, artificial intelligence is an aid to a lawyer.

“I’m not convinced that we’re ever going to get to a position where we’ve got artificial intelligence which can make judgements and that’s what law is all about, making human judgements.”

Mr Rickett says when lawyers are advising clients, they’re making judgements.

“I tell my students that at the end of the day a good lawyer is someone who is able to make good judgements based on the information they have and their understanding of it and their ability to use the information to find the relevant answer to a particular practical problem that has come their way.

“I don’t in my wildest dreams think that is something that robots can do effectively.

“Artificial intelligence can give you access to all sorts of information but it doesn’t have the capacity for moral judgement and my view of the law is that it is about applied morality.

“Judges make moral judgments on behalf of society and it is very difficult to conceive that I could put facts into a computer which could then come up with a judgment. I just don’t see that as a feasible outcome. If I am wrong on this, it will be many years before we get to that outcome,” he says.

The technology Judge weighs in

Photo of David Harvey
Judge David Harvey

District Court Judge David Harvey currently teaches a course in law and information technology and has done so for the past 17 years at Auckland University.

He also wrote the LexisNexis book

Judge Harvey says the use of technology is already touching the finer edges of legal education.

“Professional legal studies – they used to be done strictly in a classroom but some of the providers are using online services for would be lawyers to do their Profs, which has been met with enthusiasm by employers because their employees are able to do their Profs in their own time, ensuring they’re not absent,” he says.

Judge Harvey says it is logical that new communication technologies are going to play a large part in practising law.

“Our case law is now available online. You don’t have to go to the library to find out what the law is. In fact you don’t even have to leave your office, just download it.

Technology will revolutionise the information practice of law

“A lot of what we do can be described as bespoke work where you do a particular job for a client, but much of what you do in a conveyancing transaction is very repetitive. So much of it can be automated, so that a lawyer’s time is actually spent on the real development of person-to-person advice.

“It may well be that paralegals do the repetitive work and lawyers focus on the small aspect of a transaction.

“All of this has been developed by an English academic and lawyer named Richard Susskind, who has written several books about the future of lawyers and just recently he published The Future of the Professions along with co-author Daniel Susskind where they argue that technology is going to provide us with new ways of doing old tasks,” Judge Harvey says.

In the book, the father and son duo predict the decline of today’s professions and discuss the people and systems that will replace them. In an Internet society, they argue we will neither need nor want doctors, teachers, accountants, architects, the clergy, consultants, lawyers, and many others, to work as they did in the 20th century.

Judge Harvey says Richard Susskind has also been working on a controversial theory of an online Civil Court in England which could resolve claims and disputes of up to £25,000, the equivalent of about $NZ50,000.

“That envisages the utilisation of technology in all stages of the life of a court proceeding – but instead of the objective of the court proceeding being a court hearing, the objective is to try and get the matter resolved by using technology at an early stage, so that the parties are not spending exorbitant amounts of money in going to a court hearing but are really trying to settle and resolve the dispute at an early stage with a lot less court time,” he says.

Law – an innovative profession?

Judge Harvey, who is nearing 70 years old, is to retire soon and while he’ll no longer be on the bench, his focus will be on the New Zealand Centre for Information Communication Technologies Law.

That centre will be housed at Auckland University and he is the director in waiting.

Judge Harvey says it will be new to New Zealand and indeed the southern hemisphere.

“Evidence, presentational technologies in court, audio visual use are the sort of areas that we’ll look at. We’ll be developing a post graduate course focusing on IT.

“One of the services that we hope to be able to offer will be Continuing Legal Education types of things for practitioners who want to be involved in the technology aspects of the law,” he says.

Judge Harvey says a masters course is on the agenda, which would include a significant amount of material being done online.

Does technology and predictions by Susskind threaten the job of a lawyer?

Photo of Ursula Cheer
Professor Ursula Cheer

Canterbury University Law School Dean, Professor Ursula Cheer, doesn’t think so, saying it could vastly improve access to justice.

“Technological developments may be very useful in making justice more accessible to those who cannot currently afford to pay a lawyer or go to court, perhaps through low level forms of online dispute resolution.

“This will not deprive lawyers of a market, however, because these people currently do not approach lawyers anyway. So technology used in a reliable way may fill those gaps in the system,” she says.

Professor Cheer also doesn’t think the jobs of lawyers practising in small provincial areas are endangered either, as they are renowned for having good social interaction, communication and mediation skills, something technology cannot replace.

“These lawyers are multi-skilled. They have to be because they do all sorts of things and don’t generally specialise in a single area. As long as they continue to move with the technology, they’ll be all right.

“I’m not sure what legal work will be soaked up by technology – the whole idea that wills are going to be done by machines or robots or by a technological application. That sort of situation has existed well before the Internet. You could go and buy standard will forms and fill them out. I remember being able to do this as a teenager and that was a long time ago.

“Similarly with sales and purchase agreements. Various law societies and estate agents have them. They’re available and people can fill them out and never go near a lawyer if both parties are happy with that set up,” she says.

Otago University also embracing the digital age

Photo of Mark Henaghan
Professor Mark Henaghan

Otago University Law Dean Professor Mark Henaghan says the days of paper documents are numbered, with each generation of students getting more comfortable with doing everything online such as reading cases, submitting assignments and carrying out research.

“We have a whole course on law and emerging technologies and a taught masters course on it starting in July. There is a wide range of issues covered, ranging from cyber bullying, artificial intelligence through to commercialisation of new technologies. The taught masters course can be done by distance too,” he says.

Law students could use ROSS to their advantage

Benjamin Liu is a former Hong Kong-based financial lawyer and now lecturer at Auckland University. He is also researching the potential impact of technology on law including the use of artificial intelligence such as ROSS, the robot attorney. ROSS is built upon Watson, IBM’s cognitive computer.

Photo of Benjamin Liu
Lecturer Benjamin Liu

Mr Liu says one company is using ROSS to deal with United States bankruptcy law, but he says it could potentially also be utilised in New Zealand.

Unlike a simple Google search for answers that produces thousands of possible outcomes based on key words, ROSS can understand a question posed in natural language and can therefore zone in on the correct answer.

“The difference is this machine can learn, so the more people that use it, the better it will perform as more and more information is put into it – as it will have more knowledge to draw from.

“I’m developing software so that ROSS is able to be used by law students, which will better prepare them for the technologically driven workforce,” he says.

Law libraries shrinking

Photo of Wayne Rumbles
Associate Professor Wayne Rumbles

The Waikato University Dean of Law, Associate Professor Wayne Rumbles, says the law library at the university is much smaller than it was in his day as a student.

“That’s because much of these resources such as case files are available through databases or online, which meant a different research strategy was needed for students,” he says.

But the information available online is vast and that, too, creates challenges.

“Obviously online you can access so much more material and in such a shorter time frame than you could with searching for hard copy files, so we are having to teach students strategies on how to sift through the material to get what they need for assignments and eventually they’ll follow the same methods in dealing with their clients,” he says.

Mr Rumbles says the law school introduced a one-year legal method course in the first year of the degree which shows them how to create filters so they’re not swamped with information.

“It’s definitely a bigger component of the degree than it used to be, and students have to become much more sophisticated researchers than in my day,” he says.

One of the benefits to law firms, he says, is that new graduates have the latest digital research skills, something the more seasoned lawyers can learn from.

And while postgraduate Professional Legal Studies courses can mostly be done online now, Mr Rumbles says there will always need to be a practical aspect to it and it’s not likely to become an online only course.

“A blended approach is best. There’s always going to be a face-to-face element. I know in Australia there have been situations where moots have been done online but there is nothing quite like standing in a real courtroom and standing in front of a judge to develop those skills,” he says.

At Waikato University, they’ve recently moved into their new Law and Management precinct.

In similarity to Victoria University, the moot court at Waikato has full audio visual link capacity, just like in the modern courtroom.

“It’s a reconstructed District Court from Manukau. It’s better than the real thing because it has been restored,” he says.

Mr Rumbles also doesn’t think ROSS – the robot attorney – threatens the job of a lawyer as there will always be a need for human interface between technology, lawyers and clients.

And while cyber law is taught at the undergraduate level, a joint masters qualification with computer science has also been taught over the past three years.

Last updated on the 28th July 2016