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Opinion: Teaching law in a tech world

Opinion: Teaching law  in a tech world

By Fabian Horton



When incorporating technology into legal education it must be recognised as a way of thinking, not just an extra-curricular tool.

Earlier this year Bond University dean of law Professor Nick James was quoted saying “[the legal sector is] of course being disrupted by new technologies, internationalisation and the emergence of new law and all those interesting structures for the delivery of legal services". In a separate interview he noted that it was a “big challenge” to fit into the Priestley 11 all the new and important “stuff” that reflected what was “happening out in the world of legal practice". He said electives and extra-curricular activities such as hackathons were assisting in teaching skills that were not covered elsewhere.

Quite separately, referring to the impact of technology on core legal competencies, the federal Attorney-General Christian Porter stated he thought the Priestley 11 did not require changing. He was also of the opinion that the Priestley 11 was supplemented by a dynamic set of elective units that can cover changes in technology. He noted that a law degree was not just for producing lawyers, but increasingly is a general-purpose qualification. A solid foundation of legal principles and methods remains valid. And in any case, to make room for new topics, what should be removed from the Priestley 11?

This type of discussion is not new and the themes are reminiscent of William Twining’s seminal legal education article “Pericles and the Plumber”. He pointed to the difference between the image of Pericles, the lawgiver, the wise judge; and the image of the lawyer as a plumber, a no-nonsense down-to-earth technician. In deciding what should be taught at law school, consideration should be given to what skills society requires of those who graduate.

Professor Simon Rice of the University of Sydney has stated 

“[T]hat if the content of legal education must, for the time being, be prescribed for private legal practice, then the method of delivering it can break away from the implicit strictures and put law in its larger social context, through explicit and extensive use of theory". Taking this comment into consideration, the introduction of “technology components” into a law curriculum runs a real risk of falling into the trap of misunderstanding what technology fundamentally is and how it affects society.  

When including technology in a curriculum it must be recognised that technology is not just a mere “tool to hand”. Technology is much more. It is systems, processes, and connections. But most importantly, the "technological" is a way of thinking and a way of approaching the world. When considering how technology should be taught at law school, it is important to distinguish between the laws of technology (regulating technology), the technology of law (practising law) and the socio-techno aspects of law (law in a technological world). Each of these aspects of the law and technological “space” are fields within their own right. And each requires a different approach in the way they are conceptualised and taught.

So far, in the legal education sphere, much of the focus of law and technology has been placed on the laws of technology. And that is understandable for obvious reasons. There is also increasing activity in the area of technology for law. Legal-tech courses, clinics and hackathons are growing in popularity with both law students and lawyers. The next challenge in legal education is to better incorporate our greater understanding of the wider socio-technical world into our teaching and practice of law.

The interdisciplinary curriculum approach to legal education (as opposed to straight black-letter law) is well-established in law schools across the globe. This approach fosters an awareness of fields outside law, such as political science, economics and sociology. These areas all help the student better understand the world so that they can become better lawyers. Adding technology to this mix is now an imperative; at both a practical and theoretical level. 

Some law schools have started down this road. Lawyers who have not been exposed to technology and its broader sociological aspects are encouraged to take the opportunity to engage with this fascinating field. Perspectives from the philosophy of technology have a lot to offer in this regard; at the very least for their relevance to modern ethics. As technology is set to continue transforming much of the work done by lawyers, there must also be a corresponding transformation in the way lawyers understand the world. While the Priestley 11 looks like it will be with us for some time yet, embedding socio-techno themes into the Priestley subjects themselves is a good way to help lawyers address the technology challenges that are becoming increasingly prevalent in our hyperconnected world.

Fabian Horton is a solicitor and director of the virtual law firm ConnectLaw. He is the foundation chair of the LIV Technology and the Law Committee. He was the lead author of the Law Council of Australia cyber-security initiative Cyber Precedent, and is undertaking his PhD researching how technology affects the law.

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