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Why law school curriculum needs to keep pace with evolving technology

By Alfredo Contreras.

Legal teams increasingly use technology. Legal education must follow suit to prepare the next generation of attorneys for technology’s evolving role in legal practice and society.

The revenue of the global legal tech market is expected to reach $25 billion by 2025, an increase of about $5.5 billion from 2021. Nine out of 10 attorneys report that legal technology enables them to be more efficient, but a lack of tech savvy remains a barrier to maximizing the potential. A basic understanding of code can help lawyers maximize this technology to improve efficiency and protect their clients.

Computer science has been viewed as its own discipline, but as technology becomes part of everyday life, skills in that area are invaluable, especially for those entrusted with evaluating the legality and ethics of the budding innovations. Adding coding to the skill set of lawyers prepares them for a future of law practice that will be unlike anything we’ve seen in the past, with new roles, new challenges and new opportunities.

Legal education has evolved extensively over the past century in reaction to societal changes, and we should continue in that direction. Traditionally, it has been retrospective, relying on past precedents. Now, educators are more focused on a forward-looking approach that emphasizes critical thinking and developing skill sets. Code-based learning may be the next step forward in this new education model as aspiring lawyers learn the promise and the pitfalls of legal tech.

The promise of legal operations software

There has been concern and speculation about technology replacing lawyers, with research suggesting nearly 40 percent of jobs could be eliminated. Thus far, automation has only changed job responsibilities and improved performance.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is more efficient than humans at a number of functions. Software saves hours on administrative tasks, such as billing, discovery, data management and spending. Cases and statutes are easily accessible for research purposes. This allows lawyers to focus on more challenging responsibilities that require critical thinking, problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence, such as representing a client in court.

A strong understanding of AI can help attorneys be more efficient, informed and empowered in their practice. That is why building a foundation of coding knowledge during law school is beneficial. The skill opens the door to less traditional legal roles that did not exist in the past, such as interdisciplinary teams involved in developing chatbots and other products and services for firms, legal technologists and legal process analysts.

A computer science background may help cut costs, boost efficiencies and catalyze new relationships in the evolving legal landscape.

Automation saves time, but is not infallible. Human oversight is crucial, and lawyers trained in coding can identify mistakes being made by the algorithm.

The unintended consequences of AI

Perhaps even more important than how AI changes a lawyer’s day-to-day workflow is the pervasive use of AI and machine learning in society and the ethical implications.

Algorithms are only as good as the data on which they are trained. As the algorithm continues to “learn,” any bias grows. Technology designed to have a positive impact can negatively affect marginalized groups' rights due to unintentionally biased data.

Oversight of new technologies, such as algorithmic justice, is imperative, and an understanding of coding helps lawyers understand the operation of the technology, identify issues and better defend their clients.

A number of police departments use “predictive policing,” one form of algorithmic justice, which analyzes data from disparate policing data sources to predict crime “hot spots.” In future applications, that data could be combined with social media, video surveillance and other personal data repositories. While this may help predict and prevent crimes, it also carries risks. This form of predictive policing can disproportionately target Black and other marginalized populations or even be used to justify existing unfair practices involving these groups. There are similar concerns about computer models that predict an offender’s likelihood of committing more crimes.

Big data profiling raises a number of ethical and legal considerations. Including digital literacy in law education makes attorneys better equipped to monitor and mediate the technology.

Preparing aspiring lawyers for coming innovations

Legal operations software is still nascent, a field we expect to see grow dramatically in the next few years. Law schools must ensure the future workforce is innovating along with the technology.

I taught coding literacy at the University of Minnesota. Through a combination of theoretical and practical exercises, students gained hands-on experience with Python, machine learning and natural language processing. They were required to design an algorithm with bad data to understand the implications of a faulty algorithm. The course took place in a virtual classroom to enable hands-on projects.

Lawyers do not need to be able to code an intensive app. They merely need a fundamental grasp of how coding works — for better and for worse. This course further emphasized the move toward forward-looking, skills-based learning in law education.

Creating a “future-proof” lawyer is impossible, but the rising cohorts must be ready for the fast evolution of the field. I believe that coding literacy is a foundational tool that will facilitate the practice of law by enabling lawyers to leverage technology to its full potential to reduce costs, eliminate inefficiencies and improve access to justice.


About the author

Alfredo Contreras is the senior data scientist for Brightflag, the AI-powered legal spend management and matter management platform, and a former adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in natural language processing techniques and artificial intelligence. He is working in research and development to create solutions for in-house legal teams.


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