Is it time for legal education to join the 21st Century?

legal education

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?

Comments

  1. I think I'd have to insist on getting to use a keyboard I was fairly familiar with to do exams on. I did some exams in high school on a laptop and part of the challenge was adjusting to the keyboard quickly enough to get up to speed.

    One of the more unexpected pieces of advice I've been given at firm open evenings was to just not type — if you ever get the chance to dictate grab it with both hands.

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  2. Sounds unexpected advice Stephen - but probably accurate.

    My secretary has banned me from typing my own letters or sending my own e-mails. Apparently I don't save them right and when I try to file them the correspondence pin looks messy.

    Therefore, the correct way to drafting to be assessed is to find an appropriate precedent; dictate the changes you want to make it fit for purpose; and then have an opportunity to make amendments (possibly with a combination of manuscript and further dictation) a few hours later. Might as well stick with handwriting ;)

    Oh - and how often is a travelling draft done my hand? More often than you might think, as whilst I normally ask for a draft to be e-mailed to me, it's not unknown where the other solicitor is (shall we say) more experienced you stand more chance asking for a shuttle to the moon. I even got a letter once that was clearly typed on a typewriter...

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  3. I say unexpected because I see a lot of commentary on how the legal profession is out of date and needs to come into the 21st century and so on so I found it surprising to be told that, while computers are cool, secretaries are awesome. I think it's clear that someone with genuine administrative training will generally be better at it than someone who doesn't and therefore they are the people you would want doing it.

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  4. I must say that while I am used to typing and spend a lot of time in front of a computer the speed at which I write is probably quite a bit quicker, which is what is required in an examination. That said, I'm surprised I pass exams at all as my handwriting is so appallingly poor that even I, on occasions, struggle to read things I have written and typing would certainly avoid that issue.

    Laptops are becoming increasingly more common in lectures and tutorials and I do find the constant sound of fingers hitting keyboards somewhat distracting so I’m not so sure I’d like to be sat in an examination room with 100 or more people all tapping away on their keyboards.

    It is a difficult call to make. On the one hand I would love to see the legal profession move into the 21st century and begin utilising all the technology available today. However, on the other I think the scope for technology within legal education is constrained by practice. Until practice is revolutionised by technology then education is going to have to stay in the dark ages as well.

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  5. Good points there. I agree that legal education should be brought up to speed with IT.

    Actually, I recently read a book on the topic by Richard Susskind, called "The End of Lawyers?" (the title implies that economists or IT specialists could replace lawyers if lawyers do not join the 21st century). The book focused mainly on the business models of law firms, but there were some points on legal education.

    * Why do universities still persist in using lacklustre lecturers? The Australian law school curriculum has the (dis)advantage of being basically uniform nationwide. Therefore, webcasts of the outstanding, articulate speakers feasibly could be distributed among all universities. The mumbing, tangential orators could exclusively take seminars.

    * I haven't done my practical stuff yet. But it would be interesting if they introduced games (which I know do exist) as a method of teaching a la business strategy/investment games.

    * I'd love to have all my textbooks distilled to ebook form. But publishers are greedy SOBs who want to mulct us by selling cost-inefficient paperweights. Incidentally I bought the paper version of the Corporations Legislation, because apparently you can't *really* learn corporate law without thumbing through the hard copy (says my lecturer!)

    * Your story about the caps paralegal was a shocker (should have Googled it!). IT ignorance can be scarily common. One of my friends did not even know how to collaborate on Google Docs.

    I'll bring up horribly generalising stereotypes here: females tend to think they're "above" technology and so don't bother to learn beyond the call of duty; on the other hand it's easier for guys to pick up IT tricks as technology is a quotidian topic of male conversations... Anyway. Yes.

    Luddism, thy name is law. Okay, that's all from me.

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  6. Great comments all! :-)

    I realise practice is often still behind the curve when it comes to IT, though I strongly believe the extent varies dramatically depending on the area of practice.

    Still, surely it’s wrong that education has to be constrained by the slowest area to move?

    I fully understand that a lot of firms still make use of dictation and yes, some lawyers rarely send letters and emails out themselves. But the idea of the LPC accurately mirroring practice has always been a bit of a farce.

    For me, the main point is still that the lawyers of tomorrow will be using computers more and more and pens less and less. I still firmly believe that writing and drafting on the LPC would be better examined in the context of using a computer and the quality and extent of IT teaching generally in legal education needs to be improved from the get-go.

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  7. I agree. In my writing class, not once did we go over word processing features, except the occasional spell check button. It sounds weird to agree with your post, but I've made it through seven years of college and just two months ago, after I'd written my seminar paper, I learned about the track changes feature. And that was from a friend who used it on my paper.

    I would have loved to have known this existed anytime prior to that fiasco.

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  8. I think since collusion is treated as an academic dishonesty offence means that a lot of students actively don't want to use track changes outside of all-too-rare group projects (which you should have many more of, I think). If you're not regularly collaborating then the collaboration tools just go over your head.

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  9. I agree with you. My handwriting is appalling and has held me back for years. If all those teachers and lecturers could actually have read my exam scripts who knows where I would be now? Hmm ... ;-)

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  10. FPS - Thanks for commenting. It's always nice to see a US blogger swing by Law Actually ;-) But why does it sound weird to agree with me? :p

    Stephen, that's an interesting point and you're right - students have it drummed into them continually that collusion is a bad thing, so it's hardly surprising they aren't up to speed with collaborative tools.

    Michael - my handwriting isn't too bad but it deteriorates very quickly, so come the half way point in a 3 hour exam, I'm more or less reduced to hieroglyphics! ;-) Give me a keyboard any day!

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  11. I must say that the dictation / typing debate will definitely continue! I am an extremely quick typist and can do 90wpm (which is very disconcerting to colleagues with whom I can quite happily converse while rattling off an e-mail). However, I find it so much easier to dictate certain documents (not all documents). This is because our brains have two hemispheres, one of which deals with language / creative aspects and the other of which deals with more, shall we say, mechanical and numerical concepts. This makes it very difficult for our brains to think about sine subject matter and type at the same time - you are constantly switching between hemispheres. (This is why, when I used to design web pages, I would sketch out the design on paper before even looking at a screen.) So, I can see why there would be absolutely no problem in drafting documents such as contracts and very basic statements of case, but I would say that it would be much better to dictate documents giving advice or more complex statements of case where, it could be said, more creativity in language is required.

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  12. I would have loved being able to type on exams. Handwriting is 20 times slower than typing, plus your hand gets tired after a while!

    Michael, I literally amazed my colleague when I capitalised some text in word. I've seen that same colleague using a space bar to center a heading!!

    Asp, I can't believe your secretary is bossing you about :))

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