Legal tech goes mainstream with compulsory law school course

MMU: Groundbreaking partnership

Hundreds of law students at Manchester Metropolitan University have begun studying a digital skills course that is the first to be made a core requirement in an undergraduate law degree.

Dr Kryss Macleod, the law school’s strategic lead for education, said the course was designed to “mainstream legal tech”, in the first partnership between US training firm Procertas and a UK law school.

She said it combined practical skills training with a more theoretical approach to explain and evaluate the size and scope of legal tech, which often came as a surprise to students.

The first cohort of students to take the course are in their second year of an updated law degree programme which began in September 2020.

A total of 430 students started working on the digital skills course, one of 13 compulsory core units, in January this year.

On the practical side, Dr Macleod said 298 had reached the ‘expert’ level at Word Contract (using Microsoft Word’s features for contracts), 261 at Word Brief, 307 at Excel for Law and 267 Powerpoint for Law.

All students are required to obtain either ‘expert’ or ‘qualified’ status in externally assessed Procertas legal technology tests.

Dr Macleod said: “Legal tech is changing the way law is delivered and will continue to. We need to produce a programme that is forward-facing, and the feedback from students shows that they are all engaging with legal tech, but few are aware of its size and scope.

“This is not about students learning how to code. What we want is for them to be aware of the future of the practice of law.”

Dr Macleod said the theoretical part of the digital skills course involved studying a “really wide range of sources” and helping them evaluate and critique them.

These included Law Society research reports, journal articles from the UK and US, reports on the “hype cycle”, chapters from books on the future of the law by Professor Richard Susskind and Anthony E Davis, and legal journalism.

“It provides a bridge into thinking about the business of law and looking at law firms from a very different perspective.

“Students are really excited about this. Quite a lot are interested in the blockchain, often because they are already knowledgeable about it. About the same number are interested in artificial intelligence and are surprised how many areas it has seeped into.”

Dr Macleod said law students were taught about a range of technologies and asked to carry an “impact evaluation” of a legal tech tool.

Professor Andrew Francis, dean of the law school, said the deregulation of undergraduate legal education meant that law schools had the flexibly to “work closely with different providers and businesses to develop exciting responses that will position students effectively to respond to the needs of a rapidly changing legal services market”.

He added that students would have a “rigorous academic legal education – but one that reflects the changing context of legal services, with final year cross-disciplinary projects and a strong emphasis on professionalism, technology and ethics challenging students to think critically about the external environment in which they will work”.

There are already examples of optional digital courses on law degrees, most notably the law and technology initiative set up in 2018 between Manchester University and what is now a host of law firms too.

The CILEX Professional Qualification, launched last year, also includes a compulsory technology element.

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