Saying there is a “big gap” in the level of technology education at law schools across the country, Donnelly notes that “most law school curricula leave out the skills of digital competency from their curriculum." This leaves a huge void in the education of future lawyers as they endeavor to practice law in a technology-rich landscape.
Donnelly, who also helped found the Lawyer in the Digital Age Clinic at the law school, says he and two colleagues introduced the use of computers at Columbia Law School in the 1990s. By 2001, the trio decided “not to use technology as an afterthought but to develop a curriculum with technology at its core,” he says. “Most [law school] clinics do not deliberately include technology education, but we do,” Donnelly says.
When he first introduced the clinic, it was viewed as “novel” by students and staff at the law school. “But, in time, its relevance became more evident to students and gained increasingly popularity and acceptance,” he says.
In the 30 semesters the Lawyer in the Digital Age Clinic has been in existence, nearly 500 Columbia law students have participated in it in one way or another.
Why the Disconnect?
With the business landscape becoming increasingly dependent on technology, it would seem logical the legal profession would take notice and follow suit. That awareness begins in law school, where students can be educated about conducting e-discovery, project management, protecting the confidentiality of client files stored on computers and much more.
Meanwhile, Donnelly isn’t the only expert scratching his head about why law schools, in general, aren’t jumping on the technology bandwagon. “Law schools are stuck in the classic model and it’s hard to get them out of that for various reasons,” says Gabe Teninbaum, Director of the Institute in Law Practice Technology & Innovation and the Legal Technology & Innovation Concentration as well a Professor of Legal Writing at Boston’s Suffolk Law School.
Another reason most law schools aren’t teaching students how to utilize technology in their impending legal careers is the lack of experienced personnel to teach the courses, Teninbaum says. “There are very few resident faculty members who can teach it. Law schools want their resident faculty” to teach core courses, not technology, he surmises.
Richard Granat agrees with Teninbaum’s assessment about why law schools are not being aggressive about teaching technology to their student body. It’s not just that law faculty are oriented to teaching about core legal topics like Constitutional Law or Torts, it’s that “law schools don’t see technology as central to the education of students,” Granat says.
Instead, the standard business model of law schools is to teach students how to issue-spot, not actually practice law. “Law schools are not really interested in educating practical management skills, except in clinics. They don’t see it as central to the education of students,” Granat says.
“It’s systematic of the disconnect between the practice of law and law school,” adds Donnelly.
Why Tech Matters for Lawyers
The experts agree there are several reasons why law schools should teach future lawyers how to effectively and efficiently tap into technology. Among them, says Granat, is that using technology “will decrease costs and make the legal system more accessible” for more people.
He says that 80% of low income Americans can’t get their day in court because they simply can’t afford the costs associated with it.
Teninbaum agrees. “We want to train our students to help our communities because our society has a need for it.” With its aggressive offering of a tech-centric concentration, likened to a major, Suffolk has firmly established itself as a leader among law schools in that area.
While he wouldn’t say the inception of the Legal Technology and Innovation Center in 2013 has led to an uptick in applications or enrollment at Suffolk Law, what it has done, says Teninbaum, is attract applicants “uniquely suited to these offerings.”
For example, students with undergraduate degrees in computer science are now taking an interest in Suffolk Law, he says. In Teninbaum’s mind, familiarity with technology is an imperative for law students and attorneys alike.
“Lawyers need to be aware of the tool kit available to them,” he says. In addition to being technologically agile, lawyers would be well-served to be aware of different models of practicing law, including virtual practices and Limited Liability Limited Partnerships, Teninbaum says.
Besides, It’s in The Model Rules
In addition to the reality that with each passing day, the world becomes more technologically reliant, The Model Rules of Professional Conduct are unequivocal on the topic. Comment 1.1(8) states that in order to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill to practice law, a lawyer should remain “…abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology…’”
That update in the rules is thanks to the efforts of Richard Granat, who is too humble to take credit, Teninbaum says, noting that there is no underestimating the importance for future lawyers to become adept in the use of technology in their law practice. “The courses we teach are absolutely necessary for people to be successful lawyers in the 21st Century,” sums Teninbaum.
Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.