Law School Deans Push to Add Tech to the Curriculum

In early August, as the ABA membership gathered in San Francisco for its annual meeting, six law school deans and professors also met in the city by the bay to continue their discussion about including legal technology training in the current law school curriculum.


The inaugural law school roundtable took place in March in Chicago on the opening morning of ABA TECHSHOW 2016. Five professors and deans participated in that panel, and generally agreed that law schools are a bit remiss in not offering more technology-based training to law students. As the Chicago roundtable concluded, all agreed that the topic was important and continuing the discussion sooner rather than later was more than warranted.

I asked Michael Robak, the roundtable organizer and associate director of the law library/director of law school information technology at the University of Missouri—Kansas City Law School, to investigate reconvening the panel in conjunction with the ABA annual meeting in San Francisco. Mr. Robak did just that, and brought back all but one of the panelists from the Chicago roundtable.

Included in this amazing group of scholars were Ellen Suni, moderator of the panel and dean at University of Missouri—Kansas City Law School, Oliver Goodenough, director of the Center For Legal Innovation and professor at Vermont Law School, Jeff Ward, director of Duke University Law School’s Start-Up Ventures Clinic, Dan Linna, professor and the director of LegalRnD—The Center for Legal Services Innovation at Michigan State Law School, Bobby Ahdieh, vice dean and the K.H. Gyr Professor of Private International Law at Emory University School of Law, and Alice Armitage,  associate professor and director of Startup Legal Garage at the University of California Hastings College of Law.

After a brief introduction, Ellen Suni asked each panelist to make a short presentation.

Oliver Goodenough presented first, and said that the normal rules of a law practice are bending and changing in ways that traditionalists never expected. Goodenough is exploring one of the critical aspects of the changing legal landscape, and commented that this digital frontier comes in three stages. First, in all industries, technology often comes into a field and empowers the current human players in the current system, such that people strive to be more efficient and play in the system. Goodenough said concepts like e-discovery and practice management fit this “tier” of thought as it relates to law and technology. Second, technology may begin replacing human players within the system. These disruptive concepts include such models as predictive coding, big data analytics, artificial intelligence assistance, predicting judge and jury tendencies, etc. Third, Goodenough theorized that technology may eventually overturn much of the current system and replace it with something else. The professor describes the law as a system of computations: any problem that can be solved systematically by applying a set of rules can be structured into replacement technology. Goodenough concluded that “Legal technology is becoming more and more disruptive—and that’s a good thing.”

Jeff Ward presented next and likened the future of the profession to a grid where each crossing of horizontal and vertical axes warranted consideration and discussion. On the vertical axis, we find points such as the education of technology, technology in practice, the law “OF” technology, and up-and-coming technology innovation permeating into the practice. On the horizontal axis, Ward mentioned the pace at which technology is being developed and introduced into our profession as “the here,” “the near” and the “oh my dear” for each of the vertical components. Most importantly, Ward pointed out that technology integration into law schools is currently being met, in many instances, by resistant faculty who don’t see the value in teaching topics beyond expected theories taught by traditional Socratic methods.

Dan Linna addressed whether robots could replace lawyers. “A careful look at existing and emerging technologies reveals that it is only relatively structured and repetitive tasks that can be currently automated. These tasks represent a relative modest percentage of lawyer’s billable hours,” said Linna. Linna explained that the legal profession is facing a new set of realities including understanding the business of law (legal operations), process improvement, project management, knowledge management, metrics, data and quantitative legal prediction,entrepreneurship and technology innovation. Linna also mentioned the concept of “lean” in the profession, and integrating the “lean” theories into the curriculum to teach law students about paying attention to costs and productivity in practice as opposed to simply opening a practice and hoping for the best.

Alice Armitage presented the U.C. Hastings start-up legal garage clinic, which pairs practicing lawyers with law students to jointly provide low cost/no cost legal services to start up technology companies in the San Francisco area. Armitage said that technology is encouraged in the program, because it impacts how we practice law. Armitage added that practicing attorneys seem to have a new demand for law students and new lawyers to grasp and understand technology, which really emphasizes the demand for technology curriculum in the law schools.


Finally, Bobby Ahdieh discussed Emory’s joint venture with the Georgia Institute of Technology, called iLaw Ventures, as well as the expected additions to programming at the law school. Ahdieh stated that training in technology has significant utility for all students. Emory’s targeted audiences for technology programming includes students looking for careers in legal technology, students pursuing law and tech careers, students anticipating being heavy technology users as well as casual technology users. Emory is exploring additions to its programs in the near future.

Suni led the broader discussion as to what the next “move” should be related to technology curriculum additions, and suggested that the roundtable panel continue. Audience member Robert Furnier (currently serving on the ABA TECHSHOW  planning board) suggested that the panelists really amount to a “think-tank” of sorts, and collective cooperation would be a wonderful outcome of the roundtable discussions.

The roundtable concluded with the collective position that all law schools in the U.S. owe it to their student bodies to introduce technology-oriented topics into the curriculum in some form or fashion. I hope that the discussion continues and progresses further at the 2017 conference of the American Association of Law Schools , coincidentally also in San Francisco this coming January. Until then, watch these innovative institutions lead the way toward a more well-rounded curriculum for law students in the coming years.

About the Author

Steven J. Best is the immediate past chair of ABA TECHSHOW and is a partner with Affinity Consulting Group LLC. Contact him at 770.998.3800 or on Twitter @stevenjbest.

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