1Tech Year

By: Dyane O’Leary

Technology has always helped lawyers — just think of typewriters, fax machines (remember those?!), and e-mail.  But technology is no longer just helping.  It’s doing.  In some ways, technology is just as much a part of lawyering in 2018 as legal analysis or client counseling.

So why, then, aren’t law schools teaching it?

For starters, some are.  Law schools, such as Suffolk Law, offer elective courses that teach students to use sophisticated packaged software, code their own computer programs, and do data analytics relating to legal work.  Several schools also offer upper-level innovation labs — akin to traditional clinics — that allow students to explore legal innovation and technology.  This makes sense, given the changing nature of the profession law students will enter.  Thousands of companies, individuals, and public interest organizations (lawyers and non-lawyers) are building and using technology services, software, platforms, and applications to solve problems and address inefficiencies related to delivery of legal services.

To be sure, not all lawyers are going to become data scientists or learn how to code.  Nor should they.  And, of course legal education is already jam-packed and should continue to revolve around fundamentals of critical thought and application of law to facts, as well as new opportunities for experiential, practical instruction.  But that doesn’t mean “lawyering tech” need be outright ignored.  In fact, according to the American Bar Association, technological competence is a core responsibility of a competent attorney.  More than thirty states have now adopted with some variation in their own laws the “tech competence” comment to the Rules of Professional Conduct.  In those states, attorneys must “keep abreast of changes in the law and practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

What this means in practice remains unclear and is even more hazy vis-à-vis potential changes to legal education.  For now, there are small, straightforward ways to dovetail technology instruction and practice into the classroom for students to realize its benefits.  For example, students can be introduced to new legal research tools in the context of the first-year legal writing and research instruction.  Lexis and Westlaw are no longer the only players in town and as reflected on Suffolk’s Legal Research Quick Guide chart available here, new tools can help make research less expensive and more efficient.

Moreover, besides research, law students could benefit from practice with basic tools lawyers (not social media-savvy digital native students) use every day such as word processing programs like Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel spreadsheets:

  • A Civil Procedure class could incorporate creation of a PDF for e-filing when discussing federal court filing procedures, complete with a discussion of metadata and machine readability of documents.
  • A Contracts course could layer in practice with formulating numbered paragraphs that automatically re-order with substantive contract changes, instead of billing a client for tedious, time-consuming manual adjustments.
  • A legal writing course could offer students a chance to learn to use styles instead of direct formatting in drafting an appellate brief, or to create a Table of Contents or Table of Authorities.

In fact, law students at Suffolk are invited to take the Legal Tech Assessment (which is free to them) that assesses use of some of these basic law practice technologies.  It’s just a starting point, for sure, but even making students aware of technological competence during the first year of law school would be a head start in the right direction.

All in all, lawyers and technology may not ever be best friends, but clients in this era of modern lawyering certainly can’t afford for them to be enemies.  Legal education should start to reflect that reality.