Perhaps even more than other academies, the legal academy is notoriously slow to make changes to its pedagogy. As an example, law students all across America today are taught how to “think like lawyers” according to the nearly-deified “casebook method,” first proposed by Christopher Columbus Langdell in 1871. Aside from the introduction of law school clinics beginning in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, this method of teaching (which involves reading case summaries in books and then engaging in a dialectic with the instructor) produces an annual crop of graduates that go on to practice law with those skills. For many, their practice style is sharply influenced by the way in which they were taught.
With all due respect to Langdell’s “casebook method,” the winds of change may be blowing into law school corridors everywhere. New and emerging technologies, having established toe-holds in virtually all U.S. law schools, are now beginning to blossom with Web 2.0 diversity. Schools are feeling pressured to be “techiest” and “on the cutting edge” to appeal to the next generation of students who, frankly, are not tolerant of a study method focused solely on traditional materials like books and a rather solitary approach to studying.
Two recent examples illustrate this phenomenon. First, Kaplan University’s Concord Law School recently hosted the first virtual law school fair on October 27. Students from all across the country, with the click of a mouse, were able to participate in question/answer sessions about school programs, discuss application and financial aid requirements, and interacts with faculty and other school leaders. You can read more about Concord’s virtual law school fair here.
Virtual legal conferences similar to this virtual law school fair are becoming more common in the legal world outside of law school, as evidenced by conferences such as Virtual Legal Tech and Legal Tech Show N.Y. Schools are, apparently, taking notice. If an entire law school fair can be held virtually, then it will not be long before schools are offering more courses in a virtual environment.
Another example can be seen at California’s Monterey College of Law where entering first-year law students are each given an Apple iPad to help them prepare for their classes and to, ultimately, take the Bar Exam. According to the school, the reason for distributing iPads to first years was to fill a perceived need to create alternative study opportunities for its student body which is comprised of working adults. You can read more about the Monterey College program here.
These developments will certainly alter the way in which legal services are delivered to the public. When I was in law school at Golden Gate University, the school had computer labs in the law library. There were also two laptops available for “loan” for a few hours. Every day, we rushed to be the first in line to get our hands on one of these laptops. That almost seems dinosauric to me now when I visit Golden Gate and see Internet connections at the classroom table enabling all students, like the picture above, to access the Internet during class.
Every lawyer has felt the influence of the Internet on his or her practice, and for many, it has completely altered how certain aspects of law practice are conducted. Similarly, students who learn law by using iPads or other gadgets will practice law with those gadgets. In short, there may come a time when the ubiquitous yellow legal pad is replaced with the sleek iPad or the next bright, shiny object du jour.
And, so be it…In general, I see these changes as being good for the legal profession which, honestly, could use a breath of fresh air that technology’s youth and vibrance provides. Moreover, today’s technology may enable lawyers to reach out to even more consumers, helping to build communities, which would be beneficial to traditionally under-served groups.
Take the Concord virtual law school fair as one small example. Because a prospective student can learn about a campus and what it has to offer without having to undertake costly and burdensome travel, virtual fairs and trade shows have unique appeal to students with physical disabilities, a traditionally overlooked pool.
At the same time, technology is ever-changing, demanding, costly, and — let’s face it — incredibly distracting and annoying. I know from first-hand experience the challenge faced by professors to hold the attention of students distracted by Facebook or Twitter during class. At the same time, I have also witnessed students creatively using technology to augment my oral lecture by accessing websites via YouTube or other services.
In the end, the challenge for administrators and professors will be to incorporate technology that is relevant and reliable, not just flashy and in vogue, so that it enhances how law is taught, not divert attention away from the reason students are there in the first place – to learn the law.