My New Article in Texas Lawyer: Teaching for Tomorrow’s Lawyer

May 19th, 2014

The Texas Lawyer magazine invited me to contribute to a symposium on legal education. My article, titled Technology, Big Data and Tomorrow’s Lawyers, focuses not only on preparing law student’s for today’s legal profession, but for tomorrow’s.

Here is the introduction:

Much of the debate in legal education centers on whether law schools are doing their best to educate lawyers who are ready to practice today. But significant technological advancements are changing how lawyers provide legal services. While much of lawyering will stay the same, much will change. To address the ongoing evolution, law schools also must prepare students for the legal profession of tomorrow.

I try to stake out a few nuanced points, which are often lost in discussions about reforming legal education.

First, shiny new gadgets lawyers buy are just shiny new gadgets. They haven’t significantly changed what attorneys do. However, the next version of data-based tools are qualitatively different, and will affect the substance of lawyering.

For all of these innovations, new shiny gadgets were just that: tools to help the lawyer work more efficiently.
The next generation of legal technology will transition from affecting how lawyers work to changing what lawyers do. While we are nowhere near the day when Robot, Esq. rises in court to argue a case, new innovations will aid lawyers in making legal decisions—what I call “assisted decision making.”

We are already seeing see the first ripples of this next wave with new tools: electronic discovery enabled by predictive coding, forecasts of judicial decisions with predictive analytics and intelligent information systems that can answer legal questions in plain English.

Second, legal education should take account of these new technologies. Though much of law (I would argue most) will remain undisturbed, a lot of elements that can be automated, will be automated, causing a shift in the labor.

First, legal educators need to understand that these innovations will leave many elements of legal practice largely undisturbed, even though these developments will disrupt other aspects. The commoditization of certain matters that can be automated will shift some labor to intelligent systems Tasks ranging from document review to legal research no longer will be the sole province of entry-level associates and contract attorneys. In much the same way that word processors obviated the stenographer, and online research decreased the reliance on law libraries, new disruptive technologies slowly will trigger a foundational shift in lawyering.

Third, this in no way should dilute from a focus on offering students certain practical legal abilities–the very type of knowledge that will not be displaced.

Second, given that realization, law professors should continue to teach students the knowledge and skills needed for positions that will continue to thrive in the new digital economy. Here, there is a natural synergy with the focus on practice-ready lawyering, as these skills always will provide value to lawyers and their clients. The jobs that require original, creative, hands-on thinking will remain in demand. But, educators should also teach the skills of tomorrow’s legal profession.

I often describe this divide as the difference between architects and builders. The builders, who mechanically repeat the same task over and over again, without having the broader knowledge of how the entire system works, will be the first to be replaced. To quote Tyler Cowen, Average is Over. In contrast, the architects, who can think and design how to build new structures, based on knowledge learned from the past, will be the hardest to replace. The legal profession should be filled with architects. Mere builders (maybe “lawyer-lite,” as some call it) will suffer the most in this labor-shift.

Now, to pre-empt a common concern, this is not to say that all lawyers must be architects of skyscrapers or airports. Serving as an architect of a single family-house, or a grocery store, or a schoolhouse, or any other sorts of constructions is a admirable profession. There is always room for small and mid-size practices. But these are the practices who will have to adapt the  most.

So what should law schools do? We cannot simply assume that law students, because they are young, are tech-savvy enough for this new digital economy (I can attest to this as a professor of a classroom full of millenials). There are certain skills that we can teach students to help prepare.

To that end, third, law schools should prepare students for the new opportunities afforded by this technological shift. They should learn how to work with and benefit from these intelligent systems as they perform legal services.
Law schools should go one step further. Law students trained to build these systems will hold a competitive edge. The coding movement, which aims to teach students of all grades how to create and develop information and knowledge on computers, should continue on through law school.
We need more lawyers, versed in the language of law and technology, to build legal tools that are consistent with how lawyers practice and the duty they owe their clients. Law schools, and law firms, imbued with legal experience, knowledge and professional responsibility, should be leading these innovations.

My good friends Dan Katz and Renee Knake at Michigan State ReInvent Law are leading this charge. Their students, who are skilled in law and code, are snapping up jobs that did not exist a few years ago. More law firms are looking to hire lawyers trained in technology, rather than technologists with an interest in the law. And this is a really good thing. The need for qualified attorneys in this field is heightened by the fact that many Silicon Valley legal-tech startups are headed by non-lawyers. Many technologists lack the experience, knowledge, and professional responsibility needed to develop legal tools that are consistent with how lawyers operate, and the duty we owe to our clients. We need more lawyers, versed in the language of law and technology, to build these tools. Lawyers, in particular law schools and law firms, should take the lead here.

In conclusion:

To prepare our students for the evolution of the legal market, legal education should take account of our changing profession, and teach our students to lead this disruption.

I hope this piece contributes to a discussion on legal education. To address these evolutions, we must consider not only how law schools are preparing attorneys for the legal profession of today, but also tomorrow.