Legal education in the digital age

A digital revolution is changing the model of training in professions from engineering and medicine to business and humanities – and legal education is no different. ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ are seeing hundreds of thousands of learners following courses through videos, podcasts and forums. Global Insight goes back to law school as you never knew it.

Stephen Haggard

Modest changes in the teaching of law are not unknown; the teaching tools in many law schools are now digital, in line with trends throughout education. Law modules take their place among the 45 per cent of US college credits that are now earned online. A British law student on a heavily digitised campus, such as Nottingham Trent University, will submit their work online, and the tutor’s feedback is automatically sent to their mobile. These working styles will filter through to tomorrow’s legal practice. Content has been changing too, says Co-Chair of the IBA Academic and Professional Development Committee, Sarah Hutchinson. ‘Law itself has evolved in the last 20 years from a homogenous profession where qualified lawyers did a broad spectrum of work, and a vanilla legal education was the ticket. Now the attorneys expect to specialise much earlier in their training. Also, we have new entry routes for paralegals with different paths to training – although I don’t see a huge appetite in law firms yet for accrediting on-the-job experience’.

But something more like a revolution is also underway in legal education – and the first shot was probably fired at California’s Berkeley School of Law. Leaving the classroom and moving online came quick and easy to the MBA world as it suited time-pressed professors and learners alike. In 2010 Andrew Guzman was Associate Dean for Executive Education at Berkeley. He pioneered a foray into legal certification with a completely online module in business law, where students could attain the certificate by submission of a seminar paper, or take independent study. Now, Guzman leads Berkeley Law’s advanced degrees programme, and has launched Berkeley’s first fully online LL.M qualification – fundamentals of US law. Enrolments are mostly from overseas-based lawyers with heavy caseloads, for whom the virtual classroom is the only way to have regular deep discussion among small expert communities.

Berkeley’s law professors were initially reluctant to teach online. Their resistance vanished when they saw the rate of student feedback to digital teaching. Advanced Learning Management Systems will automatically highlight the points where learners are not grasping concepts or accurately understanding topics – enabling teachers quickly to adapt their methods and improve course delivery.

‘Business education has innovated and reformed quickly to deliver flexibility, but legal education is traditional and conservative and we so far are only seeing small changes and it’s just the start of a debate about innovation in education’

Soledad Atienza
Director of Studies, IE University Law School, Spain; Co-Chair, IBA Academic and Professional Development Committee

Soledad Atienza, who is Director of Studies at Spain’s IE University Law School and Co-chair of the IBA Academic and Professional Development Committee, says that change in Spanish legal education, as elsewhere in continental Europe, is little and slow. The transformation is being led by US and UK law schools. She cites experiential formats, practitioner ‘clinics’ where specific issues are tackled, and 6–12 month intensive courses from schools such as North Western Law School of Chicago, and Washington Lee University in Virginia. In collaboration with North Western, Atienza and IE have experimented with programmes that use video-conferencing, asynchronous online forums and multimedia case studies to deliver international programmes. Apparently it takes a lot of work; this is not the easy option.

For Atienza, the effort is worthwhile because the students demand such approaches – it’s increasingly normal for them to seek an interruption in their learning, or to earn credits from other institutions, and this requires flexibility in course delivery methods. This need is clear, but the challenge for law schools is to respond to it, says Atienza: ‘Business education has innovated and reformed quickly to deliver flexibility, but legal education is traditional and conservative and we so far are only seeing small changes and it’s just the start of a debate about innovation in education’.

A new acronym shot into popularity in 2012: MOOC – or Massive Open Online Course. This is the defining term and instrument of an education revolution in all disciplines. The New York Times proclaimed 2012 'The Year of the MOOC'. It offered free teaching and learning activities to anyone, lectures from famous professors at leading schools. After the hype subsided, one profession’s routes to access and certification were radically altered. Computer scientists can now get certification on technologies such as Microsoft for free by MOOC. One pioneering university used the MOOC platforms to slash the cost of a computer science MSc by 80 per cent.

The leading MOOC learning platform has enrolled five million students in the three years since it started. The University of London – which launched the correspondence LLB a century ago – jumped early, offering a free open online course on English common law, which registered 210,000 students at its first presentation in 2013. During the following year the course carried an optional ‘certification’ verifying the completion and the learning based on an online test (which costs US$49). Course data showed that (in common with all MOOC format courses) the retention and completion rates were low: only around 9,000 completion certificates could be issued. Nevertheless, learners from 160 countries participated

One of the areas where MOOCs can be beneficial is in recruitment from minorities. University of Florida’s MOOC, The Global Student’s Introduction to US Law, brought 18,000 students onto the roll at Levin Law School. Levin has strong international and anti-elitist credentials, while its long experience in online delivery means it can post cheaper costs, and promise its graduates lower debts. This is popular with poorer students and has helped to lift University of Florida into the top four US public law schools.

Harvard Law School’s free online course on Copyright Law, dubbed 'CopyrightX', sets out to use the MOOC format but radically improve on the results. It is presented in parallel with a conventional campus version of the same course. The online creator, Professor William Fisher of Harvard Law School, says his innovation so far is modest. ‘It’s based on the classical principle of graduate education in the social sciences', he says, ‘High quality intense live discussion with expert supervision. The online version is more demanding than the campus version: we observe that the participants watch the lectures more closely, and the course software ensures no pages of reading are skipped’. The course is limited to 500 students selected competitively from around 4,000 applicants on the basis of three essays. Once on the course, their activities follow the usual MOOC mode: video lectures; readings; discussion. Additionally, students write an assessed online socratic dialogue, and a final exam. On this course, two thirds of the students participate right to the end.

Fisher reflects that one lesson he has learned from running the CopyrightX online course is that demand for rigorous legal education now looks higher and broader than anyone had imagined. ‘Most of the CopyrightX students are non-legal. They are in affected professions – music, arts, publishing. Their retention and pass-rates are just as good as the lawyers.’

There are currently no academic credits for CopyrightX, but this is the next challenge for Fisher. Some 15 law faculties, from Delhi to Monash, are lined up to recruit students for  credit-bearing versions of the CopyrightX course to be delivered on their own campus. These ‘sons-of-CopyrightX’ will use its core of video lectures, case studies and activities, but add local law content, and the courses will contribute to certification to practice law in each jurisdiction.

This affiliate model is the experiment to watch: if it succeeds, the MOOC approach to education will have injected itself into the core business of initial legal training worldwide. It will also establish a new format of global discussions where law trainees on parallel versions of the same course educate each other about international legal matters. If tomorrow’s law professionals receive their training in this way, then perhaps we can look forward to significant changes in the tone and paradigms of practice.

Gradual rather than sudden is probably the pace for change. Education adapts slowly and so does law. Slowly but surely, course credits from open online courses are starting to trickle into degree qualifications here and there.Penn State University’s Criminology 201 open online course offers 200 degree credits and a cheaper route to graduation to Penn State law students. They take the open public course the same as everyone and also at no charge. The Penn Staters have the option to sit a university exam which confers the credit.

Santa Barbara California’s Antioch University has taken the gradual approach to extremes, offering a route to qualification called ‘Nanodegrees’. The term means ‘stackable’ units of small accredited learning packages, including MOOC completions, which the learners manage as an online portfolio. The specific aim is ‘widening the pipeline’ – ensuring that the bearers of legal qualifications will become ever more diverse.

Accreditation is the tough challenge for any educational changes: professions required believable evidence that the student has learned the material. A course can evolve its content and methods, but academic credit is a currency whose value cannot change. The University of Law has looked at whether students who complete MOOC-style courses, such as University of London’s English common law could be given any recognition for prior learning. Their answer is no. The Academic Registrar at University of Law observed that ‘a [MOOC] certificate of completion would be unlikely to cut the mustard for any serious credit recognition’. For the time being, independent examinations are the only plausible alternative: if the MOOC student has done the course well, they should pass a test under examination conditions set by a college.

Soledad Atienza at IE’s law school is more bullish about a change coming in accreditation. ‘In the future we will have more flexible approaches to validating the learning, and we will increasingly use technology to accredit students. That’s going to be a positive change for the schools, and the accrediting institutions’

The IBA Annual Conference in Tokyo (1924 October 2014) features a session on how law firms and educators can boost the business development skills of practitioners. Hutchinson says, ‘Law firms now seek more than merely technical expertise from their partners: there’s a competencies requirement too, and it features sales development, team management, financial acumen, communication-skills and so on. A big focus now for the IBA is reaching out to legal educators, using our academic forum, to ask the universities and law schools to turn out lawyers who are multifaceted across the whole of the business world’. In response to this push from the IBA and firms, Hutchinson observes, law schools in the most advanced jurisdictions are redesigning their teaching methods around interactivity, discovery based learning, group project work, and a broader curriculum.

As Atienza points out, the IBA offers one of the best opportunities for the profession and legal educators to work out a trajectory for training in the brave new world of technology-driven digital education. ‘The IBA is one of the few platforms where both academic and professional lawyers can speak about the reality of their fields. It’s the right place to talk about this issue.’ 

Stephen Haggard is a freelance journalist and a consultant on education technology. He can be contacted at