Contracts on Monday, machine learning on Tuesday: The future of the LLB

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By Sean Doig on

Université Toulouse Capitole LLM student Sean Doig examines technology’s impact on legal education and training

No profession is immune to the intrusion of disruptive technologies. Inevitably, the legal profession is no exception, and the practice of law and the administration of justice has grown incredibly reliant on technology.

The integration of new legal technologies into legal services is driven by the incentive to provide more efficient, cost effective, and accessible services to its clients. Indeed, modern lawyers are implementing paperless offices and “cloud-based practice-management systems, starting up virtual law practices, and fending off challenges from document preparation services like Legal Zoom.”

Such profound change has even shaped new specialisms within the legal profession, including those known as ‘legal technologists’; a group of skilled individuals who can “bridge the gap between law and technology.” While the name suggests connotations of a ‘legally-minded coder’, the reality is that the majority of professional legal technologists lack any training or experience in both the practice of law and in the profession of engineering and technology management.

Legal technologists is a lucrative and growing niche, and it is insufficient for those professionals to lack the experience and knowledge in the practice of law if they are to develop sustainable legal technologies to assist the delivery of services to clients.

Indeed, disruptive technologies are constantly evolving, and with the rapid advancement of Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) and the Metaverse, there is a need for immediate change as to the training of the next generations of legal minds. While this sort of fearmongering around obsolete skills and doomed professions is relatively commonplace among CEOs of AI companies, the need for upskilling and adaptability of lawyers has been reiterated by skeptical academics and legal professionals for years.

As early as the 1950’s, diction machines and typewriters changed the working practices of lawyers and legal secretaries. In the 1970’s, law firms began using computers and LexisNexis, an online information service, which changed the way legal teams performed research to prepare their cases. One of the more well-known ‘doomsayers’, Richard Susskind, whose book boldy — although perhaps rather prematurely – titled The End of Lawyers was published in 2008 — well before the era of ‘Suits’!

Despite Susskind’s earlier predictions of impending doom of the end of lawyers, the author’s subsequent book, Tommorrow’s Lawyers, surpasses the ordinary opinion that technology will remove jobs; instead, opts that technology will assist the work of professionals and more jobs will involve applying technological solutions to produce a cost-efficient outcome. Although technology is developing rapidly to assist professionals, Susskind identifies that there is a lack of enthusiasm among law firms to evolve their traditional practices. Conversely, the enthusiasm of law firms to incorporate technology is normally where AI or other technologies are able to boost profits and lower operating costs, rather than assisting the lawyer and delivering for the client.

The incentive for law firms to incorporate technology into their working practices is purely economical and fear oriented. Firms that do not incorporate technology will lose clients to those competitors that have efficient technological means at their disposal. There is little credible advice as to how firms can affectively alter their business model to integrate technology. After all, the billable hour is the crux of a law firm, and with AI speeding up historically slow and tedious work, its value is diminishing.

Without dwelling too much on the fundamentals of capitalism and its effectiveness as an economic system, it is important to note that technology companies — such as OpenAI and Meta – are mostly funded and motivated by shareholders. The rapid nature in the development of technology is to produce results and dividends for those shareholders. In order for the product to perform well economically, there is a rush to outdo competitors and to be disruptive in the market. If successful, the value of the company will increase, the value of the shares will increase, and the more equity the company will have to continue to grow.

This means that technology is advancing at a fast rate and is outpacing the technical skills of professionals. The cost of new technologies factors in the markup that tech companies seek to satisfy their shareholders and advance their research & development (R&D). As Susskind notes, the durability of small law firms will be put into question in the 2020’s against the rise of major commercial law firms that are able to afford to invest in competitive, new technologies.

What does this mean for law students? New skills are required to enter the new technological workforce, and those graduates that meet the skillset will be more in demand than the rest of their cohort. As a result, legal education must equally evolve to adequately prepare law students for working in technological law firms. As Susskind highlights: “law is taught as it was in the 1970’s by professors who have little insight into or interest in the changing legal marketplace”, and graduates are ill-prepared for the technological legal work that their employer is expecting from them.

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It should be noted that some graduate and post-graduate courses do exist to facilitate the teaching of some of the technological skills to prepare individuals for the new workplace. Indeed, for example, there is a simulation currently in use in a postgraduate professional course called the Diploma in Legal Practice at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law. Nevertheless, the idea here is that the burden should be placed on law schools and that technological skills should be taught at the earliest stage in order to best prepare graduates for the workplace of tomorrow.

Although it is argued that the original purpose of the LLB is to teach black letter law and the skills for legal practice should be left for post-graduate legal training, this neglects those law students who do not wish to pursue the traditional post-graduate legal education; rather opting for an alternative career path in law.

In order for the value of an LLB to be upheld, it must adapt to meet the growing demand of the industry it serves. Its sanctity and popularity rests on its ability to be of use to any student seeking to have the best possible skills and, therefore, prospects in the job market. If the LLB is to survive, itself must compete with more attractive courses such as ‘Computer Science’, ‘Data Analysis’, and ‘Engineering’. It is not enough for law professors to continue to falsely assume that “students already get it”, or that if graduates work for a law firm then critical technology choices have been determined, “including case management software, research databases, website design, and policies on client communication.”

Furthermore, firms are “increasingly unwilling to provide training to incoming associates” and seek those graduates who already possess background knowledge. Undoubtedly, technology skills will elevate students’ employability, and those with tech skills will be in high demand by traditional law firms and by tech companies that service the legal industry.

While some law schools have been introducing “Legal Technology” or “Law and Technology” modules into their curriculums, it can be argued that they are insufficient to cover the array of specific skills that need to be taught, and are rather focusing merely on the impact of technology in the legal sector. The lack of innovation in law schools is placed on the lack of imagination on the part of law professors and its institutions; fearful of experimenting with the status quo of syllabises. Institutions with the courage to experiment with their curriculum to teach desirable skills in the legal market will attract and better serve a greater number of students for the new world of work.

Perhaps the most elaborate attempt to revolutionise legal education is the theoretical establishment of an MIT School of Law by author Daniel Katz. ‘MIT Law’ would be an institution that delivered a polytechnic legal education; focusing on “the intersection of substantive law, process engineering, computer science and artificial intelligence, design thinking, analytics, and entrepreneurship.” The institution would produce a new kind of lawyer; one that possessed the necessary skills to thrive in legal practice in the 21st century. With science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) jobs dominating the job market, there is an overlap into the legal market; giving rise to a prerequisite or functional necessity for lawyers to have technical expertise to solve traditional legal problems that are interwoven with developments in science and technology.

This hypothetical law school may seem far-fetched, but the underlining principle should be adapted to the modern LLB. Indeed, the curriculum should choose its courses upon the evaluation of the future market for legal services and adapt to the disruptive technologies becoming commonplace in the workplace. A hybrid of traditional law courses such as contract law, with more technical courses such as Machine Learning or E-Discovery should become the new normal to ensure the effective delivery of the best LLB of the future. Each course would be carefully evaluated in light of the current and future legal labour market to ensure that students are given the best possible chances after leaving the institution; whether they go on to post-graduate legal studies or not.

Sean Doig is an LLM student at Université Toulouse Capitole specialising in International Economic Law. He is currently working on his master’s thesis, and displays a particular interest in international law, technology and dispute resolution.

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