Training Tomorrow’s Lawyers

Greetings Small Firm Innovation readers! My name is Doug Edmunds and I’m new to the SFI blog, coming at this from a slightly different angle than most other contributors to date. In my role as the assistant dean for IT at the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill, NC (Go Heels!), I feel I have a well-informed perspective on how future lawyers are being prepared for the demands of practice in the 21st century. Having recently had the pleasure to deliver one of the keynotes at Clio’s inaugural Cloud Conference in Chicago, I’m flattered now to have been asked to contribute some thoughts and share my perspective here.

It was interesting to attend the conference and meet so many practicing attorneys with diverse backgrounds, comprising a wide age range, and having varying degrees of comfort with technology in general. What struck me most, though, was the level of engagement and enthusiasm these professionals had for trying to break free of old constructs, old ways of going about their business. Most of the folks I met truly seemed eager to embrace the changes to the legal profession that were talked about throughout the conference. I wish I could say the same about most American law schools!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect and admiration for all the wonderful law professors and administrators at Carolina Law. They are a great group of scholars and educators who care deeply about our students, to a person. And I’d like to think that most of them feel I run a tight ship when it comes to providing IT services that make their working lives easier and more efficient. (I’m blessed with a small but very dedicated and talented team, which makes my job easier!) Some faculty have embraced new technologies and have experimented with “flipping the classroom,” for instance, by incorporating prerecorded video that allows students to digest often complex legal issues ahead of class so that in-class discussions are richer and more satisfying. But when it comes to technology as it pertains to legal education and practical skills training, I know we could be doing more.

Exhibit A: I was surprised to learn a few years ago that, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, we did not offer any courses that explored eDiscovery and the many legal issues surrounding automated document review. Or at least not ones in which this was a central topic.

Exhibit B: A couple years back, in collaboration with a law library IT colleague who holds an adjunct faculty role, I developed a course outline and proposal for a legal practice technology elective course. Our academic affairs committee approved the course, and my colleague and I were eager to begin teaching it the following year. But the course never got added to the academic schedule and still never has been since then. (To be fair, this is partly because many other “transition to practice” courses have been added the last few years, in core specialty areas such as bankruptcy, copyright and intellectual property law.)

Exhibit C: We only have about 10% of our student body participating in clinical programs. Seats in clinical courses are secured via a competitive lottery system, and demand and interest are always higher than the number of available slots. Our move from an old, clunky client-server case management system to Clio in fall 2011 was a huge success story (for which I am proud to take credit), and I think it has made the clinical experience even more valuable to those students lucky enough to get chosen through the lottery. But I really wish we could expose many more students to real practical lawyering skills through the clinical experience.

In today’s much-maligned legal education market, where most of the focus on reform is about lowering student debt, streamlining the curriculum and placing more graduates in good jobs, exposing tomorrow’s lawyers to the technologies that are changing the field is a challenge. But it’s one I’m dedicated to confronting and addressing from where I sit.

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