ABA Journal

The New Normal

Law schools can’t sleep through the technological revolution

By Camille Nelson

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Camille Nelson

It is plain to see that technology is fundamentally changing the way we live. During a recent family trip to a lodge, I was amused to learn that my children did not know what a rotary phone was. But why should they? They were born digital and have grown up in a rapidly changing world of PDAs, flat-screen TVs, ITunes, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, and texting. These are all transformative innovations, and one can only imagine what will be next. We are in the midst of a technological renaissance, a revolution if you will, in real time. When we realize that Google has more customers than many of the Fortune 500 companies combined, we begin to understand the order of magnitude of these global changes.

Technological innovation has been taking place for a long time. But the pace has quickened, and the opportunities for global connection and information-sharing are vast. Technological innovation holds the promise of enhanced access to services, goods and the sharing of expertise between people the world over. I posit that such innovation also holds the promise of much greater access to justice. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted decades ago: “What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius, we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make it a brother [and sister]hood.”

The digital generation is now coming of age and entering the work world, including the legal profession. And what do they find? They find us steeped in tradition and conservative by design. As lawyers, we are trained to look backward, to the past, as our system of precedent requires a constant check of the rearview mirror. Interestingly, our civil rights past tells us to look forward. Again, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands.” To my mind, the confluence of a technological revolution and a crisis in education is ultimately a time of opportunity, if we remain awake.

Indeed, neither the practice of law nor legal education can, or should, escape the innovative possibilities of technology. Law—its provision, accessibility, and very substance—is not immune from technology’s reach. There is now a vibrant conversation in the world of practice, in legal academia and administration, and in the legal services industry more generally. In fact, people in each of these communities are interacting with each other in unprecedented ways. It would seem that the “crisis in legal education” has provided just the kick in the pants for much-needed dialogue, exchange, and collaboration. It’s a start—the right start. For my part, I take seriously what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said—I want to be awake and active during this revolution. Though speaking to another movement his words seem prescient too in this hyper-innovative era, “there is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”

An increasing number of law school administrators are awakening to the idea that we need to transform how we educate the lawyers of tomorrow. At Suffolk Law, we have embraced technological innovation. This spring, we launched our Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation with an event featuring a superb keynote by noted legal futurist professor Richard Susskind followed by an insightful panel featuring legal writer and author at Law21, Jordan Furlong; senior vice president and deputy general counsel of EMC, Krish Gupta; and the chairman of Goodwin Procter, Regina Pisa. I created the LPTI because technology is transforming everything law-related, creating opportunities and challenges for lawyers in every practice setting. We are fortunate that Suffolk Law’s forward-looking mission specifically embraces an evolving practice reality, stating that “the law school seeks to develop in its students the skills necessary to serve the profession’s changing needs in an increasingly diverse, global and technologically dependent society.”

The Institute will offer programs, courses, public lectures, and other information designed to educate students, the legal profession, and the public about technology’s transformation of the practice of law and the delivery of legal services. In fact, Suffolk already has a range of courses related to law practice technology, including a course taught by legal tech pioneer Marc Lauritsen, which is called “Lawyering in an Age of Smart Machines,” as well as a course by Jordan Furlong called “The 21st Century Legal Profession.” We are also rolling out a course on project management for lawyers, which will teach law students how to employ many of the techniques that businesses use to make processes more efficient and effective. And we have added an ethics simulation course taught by the Institute’s director, Andrew Perlman, that will require students to operate a virtual law firm and solve problems using a virtual law practice management system. We’ve also expanded our internship program to ensure that law students obtain experience in nontraditional legal employment settings, such as electronic discovery and automated document assembly companies. These classes and opportunities are essential to ensure that Suffolk Law students graduate with the tools necessary to compete in the ever-changing legal marketplace.

We’re even experimenting with some technology ourselves, such as creating a mobile Web app for lawyers and applying for (and winning) an opportunity to experiment with Google Glass in the classroom and practice.

Importantly, from my perspective, a critical part of this technological revolution should aim to ensure the delivery of legal services to those most in need. As others and I have said elsewhere, the supply and demand curves for legal services are misaligned given that there is a persistent demand for—yet a limited supply of—affordable legal services. It is my hope and expectation that the ongoing technological revolution will help to bridge this justice gap. We hope that the LPTI will facilitate the delivery of excellent, accessible, and affordable legal services. In this way, the LPTI is part of the access to justice movement; its technological and innovative educational foundation will create enhanced professional opportunities for our students and alumni. Educating our students about new legal technologies and opening their minds to the transformational possibilities can help them adapt to a new legal marketplace. In short, we are seeking to improve our “sustainability [by] add[ing] more value through engagement.”

Critically, these changes will make our graduates more successful in a challenging marketplace. Consider that traditional employers (such as small and medium-size law firms) often cannot afford the IT staff of larger firms. As a result, they look to hire lawyers who can both practice law and contribute to the firm’s understanding of new technology-related issues, such as e-discovery, cloud computing, data security, and social media for marketing and investigations. Moreover, an entire industry of law-related jobs is emerging that requires an understanding of new technology and skills. In this technological legal world, lawyers are finding work with legal process outsourcers, e-discovery companies, client lead generators, automated document assembly services, and law practice management software companies (to name just a few). We recognize this evolving reality, and the LPTI is our first big step in the “LawSchool.Next” revolution.

LPTI already has received positive media coverage, including in the National Law Journal (sub. req.) and from the E-Lawyering Task Force of the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section (which named Suffolk as one of the nation’s top schools thinking about law practice technology). You can read additional coverage about the Institute here, here, and here. We are excited to be at the forefront of this new technological movement with a curriculum that looks and feels more like the legal equivalent of Skype than one that resembles a rotary phone. We chose to remain awake and engaged.

Camille Nelson is dean and professor of law at Suffolk University Law School. She is also an elected member of the American Law Institute.

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