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Re-imagining Experiential Legal Education

Suffolk student Paul Knapp and Practitioner-in-Residence on the Clinical Faculty at Suffolk Law School David Colarusso explore the changes Suffolk has initiated in blending technology with its nationally ranked clinical programs. Suffolk’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab (LIT Lab) is among the first of its kind in the United States, and matches students with actual clients seeking new ways to improve delivery of legal services. What’s more, LIT Fellows are embedded within Suffolk’s other clinics such as Health Law, helping to improve how students learn and support clients within the traditional clinical setting.

Imagine you are a rising 2L with the 1L prescribed curriculum behind you, tasked with selecting courses that will determine your future as a law student and maybe even your career. Some will choose to focus on doctrinal courses aimed at preparing for the bar exam. Others will take a different direction, selecting a concentration or taking a variety of courses that interest them. For many law students eager to get their feet wet with actual legal practice, enrolling in a law school clinic or experiential course work are terrific options.

Clinical programs give students the opportunity to learn about the practice of law in real-world conditions, while providing essential services to the local community in a broad range of legal fields. Suffolk currently offers 10 in-house clinics, such as the Accelerator Practice (focusing on housing discrimination and fee-shifting cases), Family Advocacy Clinic, and Immigration Clinic. In addition, the hybrid Prosecutors Program embeds students in local District Attorneys Offices under the joint supervision of Assistant District Attorneys and Suffolk’s clinical faculty. With few exceptions, clinics are offered for a full year, allowing students to invest in the longer-term progression of a client’s case. Suffolk’s clinics and externships currently serve more than 100 law students per year, with students providing more than 40,000 hours of pro bono legal services last year. For many, participation in a clinic is the turning point in their legal education – the point at which they experience the privilege and responsibility of using their legal educations to represent real people who need and rely on their help.

But at Suffolk, with the premium placed on producing “practice ready” lawyers and a recognition that what “practice” means is changing, that traditional model of clinical education is expanding in two exciting ways: the LIT Lab and LIT Fellow Program.

The LIT (Legal Innovation and Technology) Lab is a new experiential program that combines the longstanding pedagogy and legal services mission of Suffolk’s Clinical Programs with the modern vision of Suffolk’s Legal Innovation and Technology Institute. The Lab has a dedicated physical space within the law library where students work as part of a consultancy and research & development team focused on legal tech and data science work. Students in the Lab work to develop legal technology and data science solutions for real-world clients (e.g., legal aid organizations, courts, firms, and nonprofits), keeping a trained and critical eye toward efficiency and effectiveness for clients who may not have any expertise in, for example, automating tools, engaging in process improvement, and data analytics. Lab student work spans the spectrum of legal tech from training a machine learning algorithm to encode a firm’s choice to take a case to automating document creation.

LIT Fellows take the experience a step further. LIT Fellows are clinical students with a reduced caseload working within other clinics such as Health Law or Juvenile Defenders. Their reduced caseload frees them up to focus on LIT work, allowing them to spot issues and help resolve them much as a firm’s innovation officer might. For example, Suffolk’s most recent cohort of LIT Fellows identified a need for improved training for new clinical students. So, they created a virtual clinical assistant to provide just-in-time training on the use of clinical tech and procedures over their phones.

The LIT Lab and LIT Fellows work as interdisciplinary teams, building on both technology skills and non-technical builds and innovation ideas such as process changes. Of course, Suffolk’s course electives help to prepare students for both angles of modern lawyering. For example, the course Coding the Law can be a first step into the heart of experiential LIT education. In Coding the Law, students explore the technical, legal, and ethical dimensions behind the use of computer algorithms by legal practitioners and the justice system by actually writing computer code.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: “Wait, I subjected myself to countless hours of briefing cases, writing legal memoranda, and drowning in test preparation; now you want me to learn computer programming‽” Fear not, future lawyers. The LIT Program’s experiential courses were specifically designed to accommodate coders and non-coders alike. Much like in baking, the inexperienced can “follow the recipe” to create and utilize modern legal tech tools, while veterans may choose to deviate from the recipe, creating their own novel products. Supported by Suffolk’s LIT concentration, both cohorts of students get their hands dirty writing actual code, and when possible, for actual clients. LIT Fellows find their work situated in the broader context of law and society, preparing them for the holistic evaluation of a case or legal issue and new approaches to legal practice.

But what does coding have to do with a clinical experience for law students? Why should a law school concern itself with what sounds like computer science? After all, shouldn’t we leave tech to the “techies?” The answer to those questions is a resounding “no” if the goal is to create a clinical, hands-on experience for today’s law students. To be sure, countless complicated and theoretical questions are worth exploring in the future of law practice: What are the benefits and risks of using algorithms and data science for pretrial release decisions? Does the same conclusion hold when measured against one's individual rights? If AI-assisted document review is better at finding responsive documents, and less expensive than a first-year associate, is it malpractice if I don’t use it?

These questions are too important to be left to the “techies” alone, and too important not to be paired with an experiential opportunity to learn and explore. Lawyers need not be coders, and the LIT programs focus on general technological literacy instead of mastery of specific tools. But lawyers working at the intersection of technology and law should understand something about both. Those with a foot in both worlds are well-positioned to help lead the charge, and clinical programs and experiential courses are an ideal setting to foster that growth.

Despite excitement over e-discovery and AI-powered legal research, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg that is legal technology. Many ask, with varying degrees of sarcasm, will robots replace lawyers and judges? The question is no doubt premature, but in a world where lawyers spend the majority of their time engaged in non-billable work, tools that promise to rebalance this division of attention are poised to make a big difference, allowing a lawyer to practice at the top of their license.

The question is no doubt premature, but in a world where lawyers spend the majority of their time engaged in non-billable work, tools that promise to rebalance this division of attention are poised to make a big difference, allowing a lawyer to practice at the top of their license. The robots may not take our jobs, but they will change the nature of them.

It is incumbent upon law schools to take these changes seriously, and in a world where the rules change faster than syllabi, nothing substitutes for the lessons of experience. As the saying goes, it is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. At least within Suffolk’s clinical programs and associated experiential courses, students can rest assured: they will be prepared for the reality of tomorrow’s practice because they’ve already lived it.


About the Authors Paul Knapp is Contract Analyst at Harvard University and a current 3L student at Suffolk University Law School.

David Colarusso is a Practitioner in Residence & Director of the Legal Innovation & Technology Lab at Suffolk Law School

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