Preparing law students for the inevitable role of technology in their careers

Guest post by Francine Ryan, senior lecturer in law and member of the Open Justice Centre at The Open University

Ryan: Legal tech solutions are not a quick fix to solving access to justice issues

The legal profession is by its very nature cautious and often criticised for its resistance to change. But in recent years technology has started to transform the legal landscape. Even more recently, the disruption caused by Covid-19 has forced all parts of the legal sector to adapt and innovate overnight.

It is hard to predict whether the pandemic will result in further fundamental change, but it does mean that lawyers of the future will need to be more tech competent than ever before.

It is not only the practice of law that is being disrupted by technology but there is a growing number of legal tech solutions being developed to support access to justice.

There is a huge, unmet legal need, with many people unable to afford the services of a lawyer. For these people, technology can play a role in providing alternative options to help resolve their legal problems.

The number of digital technology solutions designed to provide accessible and affordable legal services is rising, with examples including LegalZoom and the DoNotPay chatbot.

Access to justice can be broadly defined as the public understanding of law and legal rights. There are many ways that legal tech solutions can be developed to support access to justice, such as chatbots, guided pathways and online dispute resolutions tools. There are multiple challenges to designing new technologies, including a lack of resources and skills to create new tools.

Law schools have started to recognise law’s intersection with technology and are exploring innovative ways of giving students the opportunity to develop legal tech solutions to support access to justice.

The Open University Law School pioneered the use of chatbots in its Digital Justice project. A group of 15 students spent 16 weeks working with computing and law academics to create chatbots to support the public understanding of law.

The students used Josef, a platform that allows for the creation of legal bots which replicate lawyer-client conversations to collect information. Users are then provided with automated legal information and draft legal documents.

Students worked in teams and were tasked to design a legal bot that would provide members of the public with automated legal information on domestic violence, coercive control and divorce.

An important aspect of the project was to foster an understanding of technology through the design of automated workflows, but the project also used a design-thinking approach to challenge the students in their creation of legal bots.

Human-centred design was central to the process, with students thinking about and designing their solution to address user needs. One of the key principles of human-centred design is the need to fundamentally understand the people who experience a problem before a solution is developed.

The students therefore thoroughly explored the needs of users who experience these types of legal problems, creating user personas to help them understand what they would need from a legal bot.

To create legal tech solutions that are useful, a considerable amount of time needs to be spent testing and iterating the tool with users to highlight any weaknesses or problems with the design. One of the criticisms made about emerging legal tech solutions is that they are often shaped by what lawyers think people need, as opposed to what people actually need.

The students learned that legal tech solutions are not a quick fix to solving access to justice issues. They do have the potential to help end users, but there needs to be community engagement and user testing too, to ensure that the solutions we are designing can provide the help that users need.

It is clear that there is growing interest in the use of legal tech to support access to justice. Changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic may accelerate the adoption of technology.

Law schools now must focus on encouraging students to learn not just about legal tech, but also about the importance of design-thinking. The lawyers of the future must be prepared, ready and excited for this new, constantly emerging legal landscape.

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