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You don’t need to be reminded what a tough market it has been these past few years. But while it’s been bad out in the trenches, imagine how discouraging it’s been for law students slogging their way through torts and contracts and civ pro classes, then studying for weeks to take the bar exam, hoping to pass. For far too many students, despite summer internships or a highly coveted clerkship, long-term legal job prospects still seem bleak.
To make matters worse, many firms complain that young lawyers arrive ill prepared for the day-to-day demands of practicing law.
So how are law schools — besieged by bad press and dropping enrollments — addressing this situation? Many appear to be paralyzed, with endless gnashing of teeth but little real change taking place. But there is reason to be hopeful as we head into 2014. A growing number of law professors and administrators are beginning to shift the backward-looking introspection toward a meaningful forward-thinking approach. And some of what they are doing should matter as much to you as it does to tomorrow’s lawyers.
Much of this innovation involves incorporating technology into the curriculum, confronting head on the reality that technology continues to radically change the way law is practiced.
1. ReInvent Law. At Michigan State Law School, professors Renee Knake and Daniel Katz have shaken up the established curriculum by creating the ReInvent Law Laboratory. ReInvent Law is designed to train future attorneys to harness the power of legal technology software tools and computer-based methodologies such as predictive coding and Big Data analytics. Students are learning that legal technology fluency can be a key differentiator in a field where unbundled legal services and more affordable access to justice are driving factors. In addition to being honored with a 2013 InnovAction Award and as ABA 2013 Legal Rebels, Knake and Katz have created a compelling website to extend the reach of their curriculum-based approach. The law school also presented “Reinvent Law” conferences in Silicon Valley and London in 2013, and Reinvent Law New York is coming up in February.
2. Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation. There is an even more recent and equally welcome development at Suffolk University Law School, where they’ve launched an exciting new Legal Technology and Innovation Concentration. Arguably the first program of its kind, this focused “major” aims to “prepare students for 21st century legal employment with specialized courses on important legal innovations and technologies, such as automated document assembly, legal project management (LPM), knowledge management and virtual lawyering.”
3. Kia’s Technology Competency Audit. The director of the Suffolk Law program, Andrew Perlman, has also worked with another legal rebel of sorts, Kia Motors’ in-house lead counsel, Casey Flaherty, to adapt Flaherty’s much ballyhooed “technology audit” for use by other firms and, potentially, law schools. The tech audit aims to test basic competencies in common productivity software that any lawyer working today should know how to use. Do you know what a pivot table is? Can you sort and filter data in Excel or create a PDF from a Word document in under three clicks?!
4. Center for Law Practice Technology. At Florida Coastal School of Law, longtime legal tech evangelist and entrepreneur Richard Granat along with widely known author and virtual law practitioner Stephanie Kimbro were recently named co-directors of the Center for Law Practice Technology. Much like the Michigan State and Suffolk Law’s programs, Coastal Law’s CLPT hopes to equip tomorrow’s lawyers with the skills they need to compete in an ever-changing marketplace. And, upping the ante, Coastal Law’s courses will all be offered in an online learning format.
5. So much more technology. In addition to these major initiatives, other law schools are taking smaller but no less deliberate steps to raise the bar on legal education. Many schools have added “transition to practice” courses to their core curriculum while broadening their clinical programs and externships. For example, Georgetown Law’s Technology, Innovation and Law Practice practicum offers a popular upper-level course in which students participate in an “Iron Tech Lawyer” competition, developing apps or websites for the 21st century legal marketplace.
Finally, something that I’ve been pushing for: Law practice technology courses are now being offered by an increasing number of schools and more new lawyers are beginning to get the practical skills training they so desperately need.
Doug Edmunds has served as Assistant Dean for IT at the University of North Carolina School of Law since 2007, following a long tenure at UNC’s School of Education. He is a three-time IT award winner at the university and has been recognized as a thought leader and advocate in the realm of legal technology education. His primary areas of interest include technology as a pedagogical tool; Web and mobile application development; virtual infrastructure; and cloud computing. He tweets on legal technology @unclawinfotech. Also a songwriter and musician, Doug is working on his third album with The Stars Explode.
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