Those behind the first-of-its-kind, jointly-taught programme reveal the thinking behind the move
“It is both an amazing and daunting time for law students heading towards the profession,” says Jeremy Coleman, innovation manager EMEA at Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF), the firm behind a new law and tech module being run at the University of York from January 2020, “because we don’t really know what the law is going to be like in the medium to longer term.”
Open to 40 third year law and computer science undergraduates (20 from each), the new law and tech module is believed to be the first such course to be taught jointly by tutors from both the computer science and law departments at the university. There will also be masterclasses from NRF. Coleman says: “There is an acceptance of these ‘unknowns’, but also a real interest in them and in the change that is coming.”
Two years in the planning, the development of the inter-disciplinary course was, explains Scott Slorach, director of learning and teaching at York Law School, as a result of “push factors from students and pull factors from firms”.
He says: “We have seen an increased demand and interest among students for such courses.” There is already a University Blockchain Society, for instance, and undergrads are being exposed to “the links between tech and legal services through existing modules on legal services and the business environment”. This module is “the logical next step.”
For their part, firms are increasingly discussing a “non-paper outlook” and exploring what type of thinking they want their future lawyers to have. As Slorach says: “If the watchword used to be ‘commercial awareness’, now, because of the way law firms are resourcing themselves, there is a wider range of skills and competencies needed. There is also greater openness from firms to have people coming from different disciplines.”
The University of York module is a problem-based learning course whereby law and computer science students will work collaboratively in small teams on a real-life access to justice issue. Learning about each other’s discipline, applying design thinking, and putting work in progress before tutors and NRF, they have to come up with a full specification tech solution, and pitch it to an expert panel.
The module uses BRYTER, a German-based “no-code” platform for decision automation. Michael Grupp, founder and CEO there, explains how it works: “You don’t have to know code to use BRYTER, so law students can use it. It works much like Lego, little bricks that you put together that can be rather powerful.” For the computer science students on the course, however, they can add code “by hand” and will bring “a deeper and more powerful use” of the software.
Grupp sees this as a pivotal moment: “Law has not really changed in its delivery over the past 150 years. The only real shift has been to replace the pen and paper with Microsoft Word but lawyers have still been using broadly the same methods of delivery. That is going to change. What we are seeing is something fundamentally different”.
During the course, “part of the legal reasoning will be automated”, explains Grupp. “Law students will have to map what is in their heads onto a series of automated steps. They will be suddenly forced, when making a legal reason, to articulate their thought process. It’s not easy.”
For the computer science students, the challenge is “being able to apply their skills in CS to a particular problem, as well as understanding the process that lawyers go through,” says Simon O’Keefe, York University’s deputy head at the department of computer science. “It will help them understand the ‘consulting’ element of what they will be doing in the future.”
The module is based around problems arising out of a lack of access to justice in society. This was a very deliberate choice, says Coleman:
“We did debate whether there should be a commercial focus or an access to justice focus, though in many ways the course is not really about the problem so much as how students go about solving it, we decided on the latter focus; it felt like a wonderful opportunity for a captive audience of young and ambitious people to put their fantastic minds towards a solution to a social problem — and be assessed on their ability to do that.”
Setting up the joint course has not been without challenges, concedes O’Keefe, because of its inter-disciplinary approach: “The difficulty is understanding the point of view of people outside your field. Different disciplines might use different terms to describe the same thing. So it’s in part about learning how the other discipline talks about what they do.”
And, of course, computer science and law students will take a different path in exploring a problem and possible solutions. O’Keefe says: “Teaching two disciplines together at the same time is challenging – but exciting.”
But the intra-disciplinary element is a core component of the new module, concludes Slorach: “Working with other disciplines is the key to student success and a fundamental employability skill.”
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