The Missing Middle in Legal Education

Flood

Our first post comes from Professor John Flood, of the University of Westminster, London. John visited UNSW Law, among other Australian university law schools, early this year. John is a great early poster – apart from having serious expertise in the sociology of lawyers and the future of legal education and legal work, John is himself a veteran blogger. John writes:

June 2013 marked the publication of the Legal Education and Training Review report (LETR) in the UK. Two years of research commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board, and ILEX Professional Standards. Three hundred and fifty pages later, we are not much further forward.

There is a delicate balance in reviewing legal education between the local and the global; between the theoretical and the practical; and between the future and the present. LETR gamely steers its way around these obstacles without recommending too much change to the present system or favouring one over the other. It’s missed some opportunities.

I will focus on one here—the balance between the future and the present. Richard Susskind was a consultant to LETR and wrote an interesting paper about the technological changes reverberating through the legal services market. (Please note the language: legal services market and providers, lawyers are only one segment of a fragmented market these days.) Occasionally Susskind refers to legal education. Not much of what he said has infused the LETR report, which is a shame.

The technological developments in legal education are some of the most exciting occurring now. They bring together technology, theory, disruptive thinking, apps, business, anthropology and more. I haven’t mentioned it but law is there too. Even though both Australia and the UK are in the vanguard of breaking legal professional monopolies, we haven’t done so much with our legal education.

For the last three years I have been involved in two new legal educational ventures that have come out of the USA. The first, Law Without Walls (LWOW), brings together students from 18 law and business schools around the world face to face and virtually. LWOW, based at Miami Law School, does this in conjunction with academics, practitioners, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and others to create a community where students work on projects while developing new skills in IT, access to justice, and business. Students are formed into teams of 4 students from different countries. They must produce a project within 4 months dealing with cultural differences, language, time zones, and wildly varying expectations. (For examples of projects look here. You won’t be disappointed.) This isn’t education where students sit passively. It’s up to them to take their projects forward and work with mentors. And this is done on top of their normal workloads.

The second venture is ReInvent Law, which comes out of Michigan State University College of Law. ReInvent Law takes the view that the world needs design, that law can use technologies such as big data in creative ways, all of which will mean better service for clients and ultimately a deeper understanding of law. ReInvent Law likes to use the pechakucha system of delivery—20 slides with 20 seconds for each slide. Using a mixture of legal education and open, crowd-sourced conferences around the world, ReInvent Law introduces lawyers and students to the disruptive world of what law could be capable of. Take, for example, FantasySCOTUS by Josh Blackman, which is based on the idea of using crowdsourcing for predicting the outcomes of US Supreme Court cases. Law schools form leagues as they vie to become the best predictors of what the justices will decide. Not only do they learn constitutional law they get a feel for how courts operate. Does it work? In 2012 there were 76 cases of which 58% were correctly predicted. A powerful tool.

Another example: Martin Langan of Roadtrafficrepresentation.com showed how legal services could be pared down to focus on one area and delivered in a simple, yet sophisticated, way for free. The website does the dull work leaving the lawyer to concentrate on the difficult issues which can be charged.

Two other exciting programmes are worth mention: LawMeets and Iron Tech Lawyer. LawMeets uses MOOCs, practical exercises, class discussion, and competitions around the US. Started by Karl Okamoto at Drexel University School of Law after pondering what made a great deal lawyer better than an average one. LawMeets tries to answer that and other questions like it through bringing together students, teachers and practitioners.

Iron Tech Lawyer at Georgetown Law School helps students design apps to answer specific legal problems in a world of difficulty of access to justice. Two apps that won, for example, were “Could bankruptcy be my lifeline?” designed in conjunction with the DC Bar Pro Bono Program to enable people to do their own bankruptcy filings in the recession; and an app to help with same sex marriage.

There are a number of overlaps in these approaches to legal education but they demonstrate ways of preparing students for the legal services market—as producers or consumers—that innovate, that create, that inspire students to think beyond the normal legal lecture. And with legal education facing crisis, it needs to think about how it will imagine its future.

This is my disappointment with LETR: it didn’t imagine a future much different from what we already have. I don’t see how we can rely on reproducing the “old, tried and tested” models of legal education ad infinitum. They are not going to fit the new world. And as legal services markets are liberalized and reregulated thus permitting new nonlawyer entrants, traditional lawyers could find themselves marginalized and the academy also.

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