Workshop Report: What Law Students Need to Know about Technology

by Lyria Bennett Moses

On Monday 18 September, UNSW Law ran a workshop on What Law Students Need to Know about Technology, in which a range of presenters combined with UNSW Law faculty to ask themselves what law graduates will need to know about technology. The workshop aimed to a flavour of some of the technologies that may be important to current and future lawyers and pose the question – what will legal graduates need to know (and thus should be taught in the core) and what should legal graduates have the opportunity to learn (in electives or via extra-curricular activities). The goal of the workshop was not to teach the faculty everything about the technologies, but rather to give members of faculty enough information to be able to make a decision about what to include in their core course and what they may want to learn more about.

Kathy Laster, Director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University, began by asking how law graduates should be trained and should market themselves in a world where lawyerly caution is often seen as a barrier to innovation and entrepreneurship. Michael Legg’s summary of the flip committee recommendations reverberated throughout the day, particularly the importance of the skills of project management, working across disciplines and the ability to comprehend the outputs of technology and subject them to challenge and critique. Ross Buckley and David Rountree (Allens) explained core elements of blockchain and its potential impact on transactions as well as smart contracts (code which seeks to facilitate, enforce or automate the performance of a contractual obligation or term and will automatically execute in accordance with its coded terms) and how these relate to broader trends (FinTech, RegTech, monetization of data etc). After morning tea, Peter Leonard (Data Synergies) and Lyria Bennett Moses discussed the uses and limitations of data-driven reasoning.

In the afternoon, Judge Riethmuller of the Federal Circuit Court brought us back to more basic technologies (such as being able to use document templates correctly, understanding strengths and limits of PDF documents, how to capture email and social media as evidence) and gave the excellent suggestion that students should take notes using databases such as Zotero rather than word documents so that it could become a platform for growing their legal knowledge over time. He also discussed the limits of automated means of enhancing access to justice and the challenges the Internet poses to the increase of slightly mad legal claims. Caryn Sandler and Matthew Golab gave an insight into how technology is changing legal practice at Gilbert + Tobin through e-discovery, automated document review, automated searching, collaboration tools and so forth, and introduced a new kind of employee “technolegals” – junior lawyers working on process innovation.

We ended with a panel and a wide ranging discussion with insights from private practice, our own National Children and Youth Law Centre, UTS (and its new Legal Tech major), and Google’s legal team. Broad messages were:

  • Don’t get caught in the hype – the curriculum doesn’t need to include every new tech fad, but it does need to teach students to think critically about how they use technology and how technology affects their clients.
  • On a related point, students don’t need to know how to code but they need to be able to communicate with someone who writes code and tease out the legal and policy issues related to its use. Students should be exposed to facts (and have to grasp those) as well as law.
  • We can help students do this by using modern contexts as example facts in class and in assessment. For example – what remedy would you need to reverse a transaction that had already been processed on the Blockchain?
  • We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in articulating problems such as “technological fix” – lots of helpful insights from other disciplines such as Science and Technology Studies.
  • The importance of teaching future lawyers to write clear, brief, simple advice that identifies next steps and best solutions (in addition to essays and other longer pieces) – recognising these skills in brevity are useful beyond the legal profession itself.
  • Help students develop a well-rounded CV, including through experience at CLCs, Hackathons and other student competitions that encourage development of problem-solving skills.
  • Teach students how legal risk fits in with a bigger picture (including the broader risk picture)
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