Is it time for legal education to join the 21st Century?
I still find it astounding that here we are, well into the 21st century, and Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers are still treating technology as an afterthought. For instance, why on earth are the core skills of writing and drafting on the LPC taught and examined through handwritten exercises instead of using computers?
The same goes with research. The paper versions of Halsbury’s are cute and all that, but lawyers of the future shouldn’t groomed in becoming experts in carting those unwieldy tombs around. They should be embracing technology and the advantages it offers them.
Netbooks are as cheap as chips and there’s no reason why exams which use computers rather than the traditional answer books offer any more potential for cheating than the current system which obsesses with pens and paper. If providers are worried about cheating they can block access to the internet, disable wireless functionality and superglue up USB ports if they’re so inclined.
Skills on the Legal Practice Course and the Bar Professional Training Course, should be taught and examined in the context in which students will find themselves once they’ve left the cosy nest of academia. LPC providers love to proclaim how their course ‘mimics reality’ of legal practice and some even go as far as calling tutors ‘supervising principals’. I don’t think anyone’s taken-in by the label for a moment.
But with all this supposed focus on practicality, why is there an obsession with handwritten scripts still holding sway? How often these days does a lawyer mark up a draft contract by hand and send it back via snail-mail as a travelling draft? The world has had a funny thing called email for quite some time now.
It can’t be right that fundamental skills and functionality that students will need out there in the big bad world is given such short shrift. Here’s a classic example. I remember on the LPC that after we’d finished our initial drafting exercises (by hand, of course), the lecturer introduced the ‘track changes’ feature in Word during a rushed 5 minutes at the end of the session. Looking around the room, it was clear some people were seeing this ‘track changes’ for the first time which is scary in itself, but the real crime is committed by LPC providers by not focussing on the skill of drafting within context of a word processing program. Here was functionality that students would be using day-to-day out there in practice, yet it was treated as an afterthought. And having spoken to others on other LPC courses, their experiences were exactly the same.
And this isn’t just hyperbolic venting; there is a real impact on the future of the profession at play here. If would-be lawyers aren’t being trained in the use of fundamental tools of their work, something is clearly wrong. I remember several students were amazed that they could change the case of text in Microsoft Word once it had been typed. One student (who was actually in practice as a paralegal at the time) admitted that in that situation, she used to delete the relevant text and then retype it in CAPITALS. That is just scary. Lawyers still routinely bill per hour; would her potential clients be getting good value for money whilst she went through her deletion and retyping sequence?
Granted, the practice of law is regarded much like driving and driving tests; you are taught the basics so you’re proficient enough to get out there and develop your skills where you really learn the art of the skill over time. That takes a lot of practise and LPC providers teaching candidates how to be ‘good lawyer’ is an aspiration rather than an realistically achievable goal. But practising word processing skills likely to be needed in practice can most certainly be taught in a classroom.
Law schools often drag experts in from Lexis and Westlaw to impart a few tricks of the trade to students. Why isn’t the same done with word processing programs? Maybe time should be dedicated to teaching the ins and outs of complex multilevel lists and how to edit them without losing your mind. How about the teaching students the art of using cross-referencing functionality which can update references to clauses in an agreement as they are subsequently amended? Wouldn’t that make so much sense?
It’s such a no-brainer. Ensuring LPC students are proficient with word processing programs rather than just assuming it, would allow future lawyers to minimise the amount of the time and effort involved in wrestling with software that they don’t properly know how to use and concentrate on, you know, actually practicing law.
I’m still tickled by the fact my LPC foundations manual told me how to compose an email, how I should deal with snotty responses from fellow professionals, as well as telling me I should get some fresh air at lunch time to manage my stress levels. But using core functionality of computer programs which are mission-critical to a lawyer’s day job didn’t even get a look-in.
Isn’t it time the LPC joined the 21st century?