Opening Legal Education to the Public Through Technology

As much as I enjoy discussing how technology can improve and enhance legal practice, I firmly believe this technological transition has to begin before – in the law schools. Despite, or perhaps in spite of generational differences, the vast majority of legal graduates are technologically illiterate. Changes to the way that legal education itself is delivered may make the difference.

Central to this change is the realization that lawyers are no long the gatekeepers to legal information. Access to justice demands that justice be accessible and comprehensible to the public. This may lead to further development of legal education programs intended for the public.

I’ve previously mentioned the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) by some American law schools for the public. The Chronicle recently conducted a survey of professors offering MOOCs. Many of these instructors believe MOOCs are “worth the hype,” and thought that online classes could reduce the costs of education. However, teaching these free online courses are enormously time consuming for these instructors, who indicated their regular coursework suffer as a result.

The growth in community college enrollment, especially when contrasted to application slumps in some areas of higher education like law schools, may provide some clues as to what the public is really interested in. Applied teaching, where education is connected to the real world, is one of the primary appeals. The flexibility of educational programs and services offered is another.

Legal education isn’t just for lawyers any more. Osgoode Hall is already providing non-credit education for professionals, many of whom have no legal education at all.

If a party is initiating a small claims procedure and cannot afford a lawyer, why shouldn’t there be a weekend workshop on what to expect? If a couple is separating and knows a divorce is imminent, why couldn’t an online course over 6 months provide them the basics on property division, custody and access, and court procedures? What lawyer wouldn’t want to refer a prospective client to an educational program that could foster more of a partnership-type of relationship? When lawyers are no longer the gatekeepers to legal education they may have to start thinking about how they can become the keymasters, who can provide clients access to the tools and resources they need.

For law schools this may the revenue stream they badly need, and for the public it might be the technological change making legal education accessible and affordable.

The biggest advantage of these online programs is the metrics instructors receive. Like any online analytics used by businesses, schools can determine which subjects are most engaging to students, and hopefully identify ways to improve the syllabus. Some courses include an auto-grading function.

The American Council on Education is exploring whether MOOCs should provide participants credit at colleges by charging fees instead of tuition. But these proposals have received strong opposition from faculty and governing bodies. In The Chronicle survey 72 per cent of faculty believed that participants should not receive credit, but expect that this will come in some form in the future.

Those supporting academic credit are typically teaching courses like math, science, and engineering, which are somewhat easier to develop automatic grading systems for. In other words, subjects that are drastically different than teaching law. Or are they?

Law schools purport to teach law students the law, not how to write law school exams. The manner in which these exams are evaluated is one of the most coveted secrets in legal education. There’s no science to how these things are marked, at least not one apparent to law students. Although there are vague references to the IRAC method, many law students don’t figure out how this actually works until some time in 3L, at which point they’ve opted for seminars and essay-based exams anyhow. 

One of these online education course systems has recently announced an artificial intelligence system which can accurately grade essay responses. The system works by entering 100 marked essays into the system, and then grades any essays on the same basis as the professor who marked the original 100 entries. The most significant benefit from this approach is that it reduces human error and the effect of things like human fatigue. Any variations within these automated systems are similar to what you would find between human evaluations.

Concerns exist about gaming these systems, and opposition exists for these measures as well. In my own experience with automated educational tools like TurnItIn, I find they are invaluable in helping to save time and flag problems but still require diligent effort to review the content itself. One of the more promising uses of these tools are teaching students how to write better. In other words, automated grading systems can act as an educational tool when provided to students to review their work before submission.

Law school instructors could create an essay template within an automated grader which would flag key concepts or cases which students overlook, prompting them to review their notes and research a point of law. Better yet, written assignments could include a factum or legal pleadings with preferred or necessary elements, so that the practical skill of drafting is taught instead of presumably absorbed on the job.

If legal education no longer needs to be provided in the classroom (or even to law students), and doesn’t even require instructors to spend much time on grading, then what will be the point of faculty at all? This concern might be the real reason for much of the opposition to technology in education, but like the automation that the manufacturing sector faced in the previous century, these knowledge workers will have to either adapt or become obsolete.


  1. Nice comment about the people doing the court procedures without the lawyers as gatekeepers . However, it is likely that we may optain a neew class of ”Helpers”. These could be psychologists, oocial workers, paralegals, lawyers and and non lawyer professionals that may ask to represent or assist clients in a court dispute.

    Why not open this up and remove the monopoly power of lawyers? In the end, you’ll probably have commercial cases mostly settled in private arbitration and small civil claims handled by specialized representatives and-or the parties themselves without representation.

    Judges and the Bar associations will frown for good reason. Criminal cases are more touchy and would require legal representation. Getting foreclosed on a house is serious but the current laws and mortgage deeds leaves little recourses to the foreclosee so those should be made fairer.Otherwise, people will just lose faith in the concept of property rights. Municipal disputes (building permit disputes and stuff, license requests ) could be handled by Revision Committees chaired by peers to avoid 3 year waits in Superior Court or Circuit court.

    The judicial process should have affordable due process and reasonable diligence as its cornerstones. If we want to rid ourselves of corruption, cartels, abusive monopolistic contracts, then some class action suits or revision mechanisms ,without hefty legal bills,. should be available . The concept of pluri-disciplinarity may hold the answer and we need to change our mindsets both as lawyers and as members of the public. Why should lawyers still have monopoly power, gatekeeper power over Justice?

  2. Adapt or become obsolete – the phrase is becoming a leit-motif of the discussion about where the legal industry is headed.
    In the pages of original research generated by the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures Initiative, technology and client expectations stand out as two of the most important drivers of change in the profession.
    How will the marriage of technology and changing client expectations affect the practice of law? Omar’s thesis taps into the debate about the commoditization of legal services to make them more widely accessible – e.g., standardizing routine functions so that non-legal professionals can take care of them, with lawyers only called on to handle more complex cases. Empowering the public through education, instead of leaving self-represented litigants wholly to the mercy of Google LLP, seems another logical means to that end.
    One of the central questions of the Futures initiative is how changes to the legal profession will or should affect legal eduation and training.
    These questions and more will be up for discussion in the consultation phase of the Futures initiative, which begins in June. Join the discussion. #CBAFutures.

  3. Omar – I was with you on the access to justice thing – I think that more public legal education is *one* step towards access the issues surrounding access to justice.

    However, I lose you on the automatic grading bit. Law school is not meant to be about programmed answers. It is meant to be about persuasiveness and creativity. The best lawyers don’t necessary produce what we expect they will produce. As it is, I think that law school education and assessment is much too formulaic. By further automating evaluation, this will serve to further entrench this pattern.

    I agree that we need to re-envision how we teach and practice law. But we are not scientists – we are if anything closer to artists (now I’m just being hopeful ha) – and we cannot pretend that’s what we are doing.

  4. Lisa,
    I don’t disagree with what law school should be about. Law school exams don’t test for persuasiveness and creativity though, they test for how well they match a marking scheme.

    Those traits are better tested, and usually are in law schools, through essay-based or independent research courses. The potential of these automated marking software are that they may be able to even these traits. If not from 100 essays, then maybe from 1,000.

    There is some methodology to legal practice, in fact quite a bit when it comes to filing and document review. Some might even call it a “science” which is yet to be explored. These are just the new frontiers.

  5. Omar – I agree that there is a disjuncture between the should and the is – but I still firmly believe that we would lose a lot in over-embracing the formulaic approach. Anyways, if that happens, I’m totally out of this gig!

  6. I am Registered Nurse. There was a time when a patient would never receive IV therapy in home and it would never be administered by a family member. This was the realm of an RN. Now it is delivered by family after they receive the instruction by a community nurse. That is commonplace.

    I see the same sort of thing happening in the legal field. Since access to justice for the middle class is obviously a problem, there are solutions to be found. They will likely be found by the middle class. They will be creative and they will be efficient.

    If I were a practicing family lawyer today I would be very worried.