Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Technology and Legal Education

Many members of legal academia have been thinking for years about what role technology should play in legal education. Professors have correctly wondered whether it made sense for them to spend time learning to use technology in the classroom when it was questionable whether it enhanced their students' learning experience. An opinion piece by Professor John Palfrey of Harvard Law School in the November 13, 2006 National Law Journal highlights this issue. Professor Palfrey points out that "[t]echnology for technology's sake, even if it's cool, is not the point. Technology in law schools makes sense only in the service of pedagogy." He does not advocate instruction in how to use specific programs that might be encountered in practice; rather, he believes that students should be encouraged to think about how technology might enhance the practice of law. "[I]integrating technology into legal research and writing courses" is a natural first step, and one that most legal research instructors have already taken. Clinical programs at law school could introduce students to "case management software, e-discovery programs, research databases and time management tools," all of which they will be expected to use once in practice. Professor Ethan Katsch (University of Massachusetts at Amherst) has had success using simulations to teach dispute resolution and mediation. Professor Palfrey comes to the conclusion that most others have already reached: Despite these limited successes, "[i]t's less clear that there's a role for technology in the doctrinal classes that constitute the backbone of legal education." Can the teaching of contracts or constitutional law be improved through the use of technology? Probably not, although there is probably a place for "real-time polling tools, wikis and Web an upper-level class on intellectual property."

In Professor Palfrey's opinion, the whole issue of technology in the classroom raises "the larger and tougher question of whether law schools are adequately connected to the practice of law and to members of the profession." Could technology in the classroom help to transform the legal profession? We may have an answer to this question later this year when a study undertaken by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, of which Professor Palfrey is executive director, and LexisNexis is released. This study will survey practicing attorneys and law faculty and ask them whether they think technology can "play a transformative role in legal education at a systemic level." The goal of the study is to "highlight some of the most promising ways forward."

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