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Taking law and technology teaching to all students

05 April 2019 - By Lynda Hagen

Undergraduate teaching of law and practice around new information technologies may become mainstreamed due to a major new Law Foundation-funded research project.

The $332,000 Technology in Legal Education project intends to create an online toolkit enabling law lecturers to integrate legal technology subjects within core curriculum papers. This could allow second and third-year law students to study emerging areas like artificial intelligence, digitisation of courts, and the use of audio-visual technologies to interview clients and cross-examine witnesses, among other things.

Virtual reality headset

Project leader, University of Waikato Law School Dean Wayne Rumbles, says the project, backed by all six law schools, aims to ensure all law students – not just those with a specialty interest – get a grounding in information technology law.

“A number of law faculties already have specialist papers. Our aim is to include this more broadly within the curriculum, because otherwise the only students studying it are those who are focused on technology,” he says.

“Every student needs to engage in technology; that’s where government, business, law firms and the judiciary are going. It’s no longer a specialist area. It’s part of everyday life.”

The two-year project, which gets under way this month, will engage with practitioners and the judiciary to examine the use of technology, as well as to help expand the skills and knowledge base needed by the legal system to propel the economy and society forward in the modern, technology-driven era.

The legal technology project came about through the New Zealand Law Foundation’s Information Law and Policy Project (ILAPP). ILAPP supports several law and technology research studies in areas like digital/crypto currencies, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, online courts, smart contracts and the regulation of new technology. This project will be the last major ILAPP initiative before the Foundation brings ILAPP’s work to a close this year.

The Law Foundation has worked hard with the law faculties and Professor Rumbles on developing this project. The Technology in Legal Education project is among the most important the Foundation has funded in its 26-year history for the profession.

Preparing the next generation

This project will create valuable opportunities to build capability for the future of law in New Zealand. If we get this right, the next generation of New Zealand law graduates will be much better prepared for a workplace that is increasingly being taken over by new information technologies.

The online toolkit, or portal, will allow law schools to choose how they integrate technology into the curriculum. In criminal law, for example, there could be teaching on the use of technology in evidence gathering or dispute resolution. Lawyers and teachers will be able to access the portal, and a public section will make journal articles, reports and other material available to anyone.

Adapting legal practice to the challenges of technology is a hot topic internationally. A 2016 Deloitte (UK) report, Developing legal talent – stepping into the future law firm, argues that fewer traditional lawyers will be needed as technology adoption increases, although more roles will be required in the transient talent pool. It says traditional lawyers must also be able to understand data, deal with complex technology and manage risk in addition to utilising their traditional knowledge and technical skills.

Other overseas examples of law and technology teaching include a compulsory paper on digital lawyering at the University of Cumbria in northern England, which covers the use of audio-visual technology, online dispute resolution and practice management software. A new law school opening in Toronto is considering integrating technology throughout the degree, including running “boot camps” on programme coding for lawyers.

Professor Rumbles and his Waikato University-based team will draw on the approaches taken in the US, UK and parts of Asia. He says restrictions on varying the scope of the New Zealand law degree prevents adoption here of a common US model of technology-related teaching, which is effectively a different degree from the mainstream practice degree.

“The other option is elective papers, but they are only taken by students who are already well-versed in technology,” he says. “The LLB course is currently prescribed by the Council of Legal Education – we can’t change that, but we will produce a complementary toolkit. People can take content from that and adapt it for use throughout the existing curriculum.”

The project was preceded by a scoping study that reviewed international expertise and practice in legal technology education. Wayne Rumbles says the project will work initially on five compulsory subjects taught in all law schools – contract law, criminal law, land law, public law and the law of torts. It will refine and share IT content that is already being taught.

The project team will be led from Waikato by Professor Rumbles, a specialist on law and information technology. There will be input from the other law schools, which strongly support the project.

Input from all law schools

University of Auckland Acting Law Dean Warren Swain says legal education needs work in tandem with technological advances. “Lawyers are often at the forefront of technological change … in order for the curriculum to remain relevant to future generations of lawyers, it is important that legal education engages with these advances in technology.”

Mark Hickford, Law Dean of Victoria University of Wellington, says: “By taking a collaborative, planned approach to ensuring new technology is appropriately reflected in legal education, we can better equip our graduates to deal with some of today’s most complex and pressing legal issues.”

And University of Canterbury Law Dean Ursula Cheer says of the project: “It will generate significant information and resources for New Zealand law schools to use to ensure the teaching of law produces graduates who are future work-ready, adaptable and resilient.”

University of Otago Law Dean Jessica Palmer says the project will provide a boost to all New Zealand’s law schools and their students. “This project is an effective way for the six law schools to share ideas and reflect on our own curricula to ensure that our students are thinking about modern day problems and seeing that the law remains relevant and important,” she says.

Another strong supporter is the UK law and technology expert Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Lord Thomas will deliver a lecture series in New Zealand later this year under the Law Foundation’s Distinguished Visitor Fellowship programme.

He says the project would put New Zealand law schools at the forefront of common law worldwide and bring considerable benefit to the future of the profession.

“I have no doubt that it is now necessary to provide students studying law with skills in digital technology,” he says.

“It is recognised by many who think about what is necessary for practice of the law in the coming decade that students must be taught the skills necessary not only for them to deal with the way business and day-to-day life is rapidly adopting digital technology, but also the way such technology is changing the practice of law.”

The New Zealand Law Society also backs the project, describing the future of law and technology as a priority area. Outgoing President Kathryn Beck praises the project’s inclusion of all law schools.

“We know we need to prepare the profession for the technological changes that are already impacting on the practice of law. I note that one of the aims of the project is to ensure that law schools are giving students the skills and critical thinking they need to practise law in an increasingly technologically dependent environment. This will be vital if the legal profession is to keep pace with societal changes in this area.”

For further information on this project and others funded under the Law Foundation ILAPP work programme, visit the Information Law and Policy Project tab on our website.

Last updated on the 5th April 2019