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Are law schools keeping up with tech?

Aug 19 2016 14:13
Sean Christie
Nerushka Bowan is senior associate and business de

Nerushka Bowan is senior associate and business development manager at Norton Rose Fulbright (Picture: Supplied)

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So what are the country's law schools doing to teach law graduates about the technology of law? Not much, it seems. In fact, few of the law faculty managers finweek called understood the question at first. 

Five managers of leading law schools were called, and all took “technology of law” (describing the uses of technology in law) to mean the “law of technology”.

They all proceeded to explain in detail what their departments offer (and plan to offer) in the areas of intellectual property law, privacy law, ICT law, cyberlaw, e-law, and so forth. They also talked about how their teaching methods have undergone a degree of electronic transformation, with teachers sharing lecture notes via online forums, logging attendance via fingerprints, offering e-books instead of text books, driving students to do case research via electronic databases, and more. 

But as Nerushka Bowan of Norton Rose Fulbright says: “The law firms of the very near future will be looking for graduates who are not merely tech-savvy, but who know about document automation, cloud computing, AI systems, legal process engineering and more. We’ve been travelling the world talking to the big banks about blockchain, being the technology behind Bitcoin, and it seems increasingly likely that the financial world will soon be using smart contracts, which could mean that lawyers will be expected to compose contracts in code.”

Local tech futurist Arthur Goldstuck has made a similar observation. “I’ve been giving a lot of talks about the technologies that will be going mainstream in the next 10 years, and the jobs that will be in jeopardy. One that I’ve flagged is legal interns, as most of their roles will be replaced by AI, algorithms and automation in the next decade. That means a smaller pool of trainee lawyers, which ultimately could spell a crisis for the legal profession.”

He adds that any crisis for the legal profession is also a crisis for law schools.   

Few law schools have even begun to think about teaching such skills, however. Shobhna Sugam, the administrative manager of the Wits Law School, wonders where the money would come from. “With recent budget cuts, it’s becoming difficult to maintain the electronic programs we already have in place,” she says.

Professor Dawie de Villiers from the University of Johannesburg explains that “the shortening of the five year LLB to four years” has imposed time constraints, “preventing the introduction of new modules, although where we can we have been introducing technological aspects into the old modules”.

To find out more about the rise of "virtual" legal services providers, click here.

This article originally appeared in the 11 August 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

education  |  tech trends  |  law

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