Guest post from Darren Weir, director of lawyering skills at Kent Law School
If anyone is going to push our profession towards more modern ways of working, it is new people, with new ideas. But these people need a well-rounded legal education and a full understanding of the practices involved.
Those who have been in the profession for any length of time will have seen the monumental changes brought about by technology. But sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to show us how far we still have to go; what we may consider cutting-edge practices can seem clunky and unnecessary to a 19-year-old.
Experienced practitioners may see technology as a way to streamline or simplify existing processes, whereas a new one might question why that process needs to exist in the first place.
The profession needs well-rounded lawyers
Readers may be aware of how fundamentally the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has changed the way we deliver legal education. The market has produced various products focused on helping students pass the SQE – 10- and 20-week prep courses, for example, and manuals so students can self-learn.
But most law firms think this isn’t enough and want trainees to take additional practice-focused modules. We agree. So, since 2018, we have been reviewing our programme to account for the new SQE, but also exploring the role of a lawyer in a society where demographics, attitudes, and technologies are moving so quickly. All this whilst ensuring that we kept Kent Law School’s critical approach to the law at the heart.
The new course that we developed extends the usual three-year law degree to a four-year integrated masters (MLaw). That fourth year is crucial, because it’s where students focus on critical approaches to legal practice, with five themes running across all our modules:
- Professionalism, identity, and ethics;
- Mistakes, disputes, and procedural contingency;
- Justice, democracy, and citizenship; and
- Capitalism and finance.
As well as learning functioning legal knowledge, therefore, we hope to remind students about their role in the world as lawyers in a critical way and from several different perspectives.
At the same time, students can hone their talents in our co-curricular lawyering skills programme, some of which are assessed as part of the SQE2 (mock trial advocacy, mooting, negotiation, mediation and client interviewing).
Our student outdoor clerking scheme (SOCS) is a good illustration of how one theme in particular (technology) manifests itself in students’ work. In this programme, students represent a firm of solicitors and sit behind counsel in the Crown Court, taking notes – almost always digitally.
Solicitors wanted a secure and user-friendly method for students to share notes with counsel and solicitors. We found software that lets us do that, but also saw it was a good way to prepare for external moots and create bundles. We have started using it as a simulated case file builder in our master’s in law (MLaw) programme.
Over five years of using the software in our lawyering skills programme, we wanted to share good practice and expose as many students as possible to it.
Putting our skills to the test
So we decided to create and host the first National Law Student Triathlon in 2022, with the second taking place in April of this year. Because we felt that students needed testing in more than one discipline, we made it a multi-skill event.
Over the course of the weekend, around 50 competitors from 26 teams representing 25 or so universities complete a negotiation, a county court application and an appeal of some kind from that application.
We have around 18 practitioners and judges who come in to judge the competition. They also hold a careers panel event as well as advocacy training and there are a number of opportunities for everyone to socially interact.
The entire (in-person) competition is run digitally and competitors are exposed to our preferred digital systems for one week prior to the event in a training session. It is then used to upload all documents and complete their challenges during the triathlon itself.
Gen Z lawyers realistic on the benefits of digital tools
I’m sure lawtech firms would like it if I told the world that students universally love using their software and that every court, law firm and law school in the country will be buying licenses. But it’s important to understand the range of views that tomorrow’s lawyers have about it.
In both years that we have run the triathlon, we surveyed the participants, asking them whether they found the platform easy and intuitive. It may not surprise many readers to see that 91% found the system very easy or easy to use and 96% highly agreed or agreed that they would recommend the platform used to people in their cohort.
That said, students were not completely sold on the idea of a paperless legal system. While 55% highly agree or agree with that idea, 20% are ambivalent, and about a quarter of students disagree.
We will continue to use our digital systems to prepare students for their law careers because we have found them to be efficient, popular and accessible. We also find that using them exposes students to the wider discussions about digitalisation, including what can go wrong: technical issues, digital exclusion, data security concerns, and lack of training for example.
Understanding the role of technology in our sector – in a range of contexts – is another string to students’ bows and is a more beneficial skill than simply being digitally proficient.
Congratulations to the team from Queen’s University Belfast on their victory in this year’s event. We are already preparing for next year’s triathlon and monitoring the latest advances in lawtech to see how we can keep things fresh.
How long before a team of AI bots can put forward a convincing court application? When (if?) that time comes, I’m sure our students will be ready.
The National Law Student Triathlon is run by Kent Law School and Legal Futures Associate Thomson Reuters. Earlier this month, we published reflections from Sarah Hair, part of the winning Queen’s University Belfast.