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Preparing Lawyers for a Digital Information Age

 Preparing Lawyers for a High Tech info Age

In a climate of disruption, new technology and rapid change, law graduates today must use this technology to improve the provision of legal services and to provide new services in new ways to new groups in society. Tomorrow’s graduates must increasingly create their own positions. In a world of innovation, lawyers, law firms and legal educators must themselves be innovative.

Even in cases where law graduates go to work in a firm or government department, these young lawyers are expected to be technologically proficient as well as know the law. Communication skills and business literacy are also at premium. If a student does not understand the business or other context within which they operate, then their usefulness will be severely limited. Technology developments such as the Internet of Things, Facebook, WeChat and other new business models are impacting every subject in the law curriculum as well creating the need for new subjects dealing with new technologies such as robotics and the law nanotechnology and gene technology.

Law Schools must do more to address these needs. Some schools remain in denial and continue to focus on what they have always done—teaching students to think like a lawyer and learn theory, but with little attention to skills. The best will “future-proof” their students by intruding more ‘skills’ courses into the curriculum. Some faculties will go further and map essential skills across the whole curriculum with faculty and admin support working together as a team to minimise gaps and ensure adequate coverage and evidenced-based student learning outcomes covering such areas as technology literacy, communication, interviewing, factual investigation and other skills.

In many law schools, technology today remains the province of specialized courses such as Cyber Law or Internet Law. For example a week ago, the students in my Cyber Law class gave presentations on legal issues involving such topics as: 3D printing, nanotechnology, online dispute resolution, cyber insurance, blockchain technology applications, drones, big data, privacy, security, social media, self-driving cars, use of robots, artificial intelligence, gene technology, open source software, new business models such as Uber and the growing importance of ‘code’ as a regulator of human activity.

Some law schools are also deploying experiential learning and technology tools, including the deployment of virtual reality, to achieve the aim of preparing their lawyers for the realities of legal practice.

Virtual reality has great potential to transform training and education for all professions and can be used to create client interview situations, courtroom contexts and other scenarios through which students can receive feedback to map their learning and improvement.

Legal clinics are growing in popularity, including among Chinese law schools. These clinics and other experiential learning situations bring students into contact with entrepreneurs, start-up businesses and social entrepreneurship such as innovative government programs seeking to improve services to the public.

The fundamental lessons underlying all of these developments are:
1. Technology literacy is required today for all professionals. It is not something that can just be left to the IT team. Peter Drucker was correct that in our increasingly convergent professional world, we are all knowledge workers and involved in creating knowledge products and delivering knowledge services.

2. Relevant Skills, such as communication, collaboration, networking, and data analytics, should also be part of professional degrees.

2. Greater use of technology should be made to enhance the quality and effectiveness of education, for example virtual reality.

3. Theory and practice must come together through such practices as experiential learning.

4. Ongoing curriculum reform is required to map these skills across the curriculum so that students may achieve the best possible learning outcomes

5. Faculties are required to have the values, skills and commitment required to achieve these goals. For many existing faculties, this will require a greater willingness to look forward, embrace and adapt to these changes in society.

6. Existing facilities must be adapted and new ones designed for a different type of teaching that enables students to become technologically proficient and more actively engaged. Also, facilities must have the technological and other resources required for constant innovation.

7. Law schools and their universities must be willing and able to partner with the legal profession and other stakeholders who will employ and be the consumer of services provided by legal professionals in the 21st century. Both law schools and law firms must place a higher priority on innovation.

8. Students must be encouraged to be job creators as well as job takers. They need to be conscious of building their own brand. They must be prepared for an information environment where change will be a constant, organisations will be flatter, and where they must continue to learn and innovate or die.

Technology presents both threats and opportunities to lawyers. Those who do not innovate are likely to see their business suffer. Those that use technology well will not only be more efficient in what they do, but will create opportunities to deliver new forms of legal services in new ways to new clients. In today’s digital environment keeping client confidences secure is not always easy, but it certainly is necessary. Indeed, I would argue, lawyers cannot ethically avoid using technology tools. They must take responsibility for the digital security of client and other information. They must know about encryption and the risks and benefits of cloud computing. They must be responsible for keeping up to date with technological advances and the issues they raise in relation to the delivery of legal services.

Robert Pirsig wrote in his best-selling work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, that “The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity, it's right. If it disturbs you, it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed." Legal education must play its part in educating the next generation of lawyers who are able to work across disciplines and exercise the judgment and wisdom required to ensure that 21st century technology is used to create the tranquillity and calmness that comes from a life well spent and a world made better for it.

Dr Eugene Clark is Dean and Professor of Law, Sydney City School of Law:


8th February 2017