The T-Shaped Factor: An Exposure to Tech in Law School

As a recent graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, and as someone who has an interest in technology and innovation, I often find myself thinking about how the two can intersect. While I have been looking for ways to build a career at the juncture of tech and law, I wonder: would taking advantage of technological advancement be beneficial for all future lawyers?

While precedential value is an important pillar of our legal system, law students, practicing lawyers, and clients are beginning to recognize the need for knowledge and competency in technology, which is an inescapable move away from tradition.

Technology has the potential to streamline the work done by lawyers, and the resulting efficiency translates to quicker deliverables for clients, at a lower cost. This ability to use advancement in the profession inevitably begs the question of whether lawyers should have a requisite level of tech competence in order to carry out their duties? And, if so, must they adopt the latest mechanisms and skills in order to zealously represent the interests of their clients, as mandated by the profession? Does technology demand that our professional responsibility rules undergo a dramatic overhaul similar to that of the United States’ amended Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 2012? (This question has been a reoccurring one on Slaw for some time. See for example, Amy Salyzyn’s Slaw blog dating back to 2017).

Several firms have, indeed, adopted emerging technological tools and are actively responding to changing times. Nevertheless, as noted by Colin LaChance in a recent Slaw post, there seems to be a resistance in the profession to fully embrace new advancements. This is, arguably, justifiably so. The high level of responsibility of lawyers and the confidence that is instilled in them by their clients demands that practitioners must perform their duties in a trusted, reliable way. This includes not only privacy concerns (the importance of which cannot be underestimated) but also efficiency, effectiveness, and considering the client’s best interests at all times. Utilizing a new, and untested, tool may be a defensible reason for the resistance to change in the face of emerging technologies. However, what is perhaps the best option for lawyers is educating themselves on emerging technologies – how they work, what they can do and what they can’t do. This way they may feel confident in evaluating whether making use of such tools would be in their client’s best interests.

Integrating technology into a legal practice can provide benefits to both lawyers and clients. Lawyers, for example, could consider using legal technology to automate repetitive work so that lawyers can focus their time and energy on addressing the more complex aspects of a file. For clients, lawyers who understand and use technology can pass the benefits of these technologies onto clients by offering more efficient, accessible and importantly more affordable services

Unfortunately, most law schools (with a few exceptions including Osgoode Hall Law School, the University of Calgary, Thomson Rivers University, and the proposed curriculum for Ryerson’s new law school) have been slow in responding to the changing legal landscape and supplementing the substantive knowledge of the law with practical skills that will certainly be useful in students’ careers, regardless of the area of law they practice in.

After three years of law school, I am now entering a field full of competent, experienced lawyers who are truly skilled at what they do. As such, I feel impelled to find a way to offer something new to the field; I see it both as a personal and a professional duty. My vision of a future successful lawyer is someone who understands how to use emerging tools that effectively and efficiently meet the developing needs of their clients. Furthermore, to me, technology is not just about using the tools made available to us, but also about understanding the community as a whole. For example, I see my professional role in this respect as being supportive of the tech and innovation communities so that entrepreneurs can be left to do what they do best– create. Understanding future clients —who will likely be active in emerging fields— and the landscape they operate in is important for my generation of lawyers. Fortunately, I had the privilege of working at a law firm that gave me these tools, but an exposure to them during law school would have better equipped me to more fully and capably contribute to various files.

Can Tech Competency Solve the Access to Justice Problem?

Technology has the potential to supplement, rather than replace, the work that lawyers do for their clients. This is of course true in a number of scenarios, but in my own experience, I have seen its importance for start-ups that do not have the means to retain counsel, but desperately need legal assistance to either become operational or protect themselves.

More widely, however, one can consider that future lawyers can (and will likely need to) use websites as a comprehensive, interactive first point of contact to enable clients to clearly define their needs, which would make their interactions with lawyers more focussed and efficient. This translates into narrowly personalised deliverables in exchange for lower fees. This also frees up lawyers to assist a greater number of clients.

Another example is smart documents that offer personalized deliverables based on a client’s needs canvassed in an efficient, albeit comprehensive, questionnaire. Indeed, there have been several projects and businesses that offer such tools. However, effective use of such contracts requires tech competency on the part of the lawyer given their duty to offer zealous advocacy and not just depend on the technology.

As such, technology has the power to respond to our pervasive access to justice problem. This was notably the topic of discussion at Access to Justice Week in Ontario—an initiative set up by The Action Group on Access to Justice and supported by the Law Foundation of Ontario and the Law Society of Ontario. As part of this initiative, 1,500 Ontarians were surveyed, of whom 54 per cent said the justice system is out of reach and 78 per cent said it was old-fashioned.

But, where should it start?

In short: in law school.

I discovered that I could, in fact, merge my interests in technology and law only after my summer term at a law firm following my second year of law school. Furthermore, the first time that I was exposed to a tech-focused class in law school was in my last semester. While I am grateful that Osgoode recognized the need for a course built on technology and the law, I cannot help but think about how well such a course would have complemented our mandatory first year course which addresses the topic of ethical lawyering. Technology must be factored into the discussion of how we can be ethical lawyers and actively turn our minds to the access to justice problem that is burdening our profession. Inserting technology into the discussion, in my opinion, would offer students a more complete picture of the changing landscape of the legal profession and, therefore, make them better equipped for understanding different approaches to certain issues, including the access to justice crisis.

The New Wave

We shop, bank, communicate, and perform numerous other tasks online, but obtaining legal services is something that still has archaic procedures. While the urgency of this problem may be slightly less palpable in cities like Toronto, rural communities do not enjoy the same access. There are fewer lawyers in such areas and the commute to consult with a lawyer located elsewhere can act as a deterrent, especially if this has to be done during standard business hours.

Therefore, one action point for future lawyers could be using technology as an arm to reach remote communities to ensure that they are not left behind. Access to justice is not just about the disenfranchised, but also, for example, about the single mother living on the outskirts of a city who needs to consult a lawyer regarding a custody issue, but does not have either the financial means or the time to do so. A holistic view of how technology can help is necessary here.

With increased use of new tools, lawyers could spend less time on administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments or docketing, that have a low-value for a client. Rather, efficiency is within reach.

The above requires a new way of thinking about access to justice. Again, in my view, this starts at the law school level. While several schools have effectively turned their minds to the access to justice problem and have adjusted their curriculums accordingly, the discussion is not (yet) complete. There are very few, non-mandatory courses that educate students on the potential and breadth of technology. This means that students likely leave law school never having been exposed to such issues, or worse, they do not have the opportunity to be exposed to them due to the scarcity of such courses in the law school curriculum.

Some law firms have become early-adopters of technology, by not only embedding such tools into their systems, but also retaining personnel who specifically help with such initiatives. A ground-up approach, however, would further stimulate this initiative and lead to increased use.

Perhaps the problem that we have discussed for some time can only be solved by collective, forward-thinking group effort.

Editor’s Note – Permission to republish this article, written on behalf of the – was granted – with first publication on Slaw.

Posted in: Ethics, KM, Legal Education, Legal Profession, Legal Technology, Technology Trends