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Technology as Part of the Culture for Legal Professionals

A Q&A with Daniel Christian

Professionals in the legal field are faced with new challenges as they try to understand the impact of emerging technology on the law. The legal profession itself is by nature tied to the way society functions, and of course technology is increasingly a big part of the way society conducts itself. But technology is changing so rapidly that law professionals may find themselves overwhelmed.

While the legal profession struggles to keep up with the pace of technology change, law schools are finding that they need to make sure their graduates are prepared to practice in a "culture of technology".

Here, Daniel Christian, director of instructional services for the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, tells CT why law schools should make sure new technologies are represented in a legal education.

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"Technology should be part of the culture for those who choose a career in law." — Daniel Christian

Mary Grush: Why should new technologies be part of a legal education?

Daniel Christian: I think it's a critical point because our society, at least in the United States — and many other countries as well — is being faced with a dramatic influx of emerging technologies. Whether we are talking about artificial intelligence, blockchain, Bitcoin, chatbots, facial recognition, natural language processing, big data, the Internet of Things, advanced robotics — any of dozens of new technologies — this is the environment that we are increasingly living in, and being impacted by, day to day.

It is so important for our nation that legal professionals — lawyers, judges, attorney generals, state representatives, and legislators among them — be up to speed as much as possible on the technologies that surround us: What are the issues their clients and constituents face? It's important that legal professionals regularly pulse check the relevant landscapes to be sure that they are aware of the technologies that are coming down the pike. To help facilitate this habit, technology should be part of the culture for those who choose a career in law. (And what better time to help people start to build that habit than within the law schools of our nation?)

Grush: Are we at a point where legal professionals, specifically, are finding it difficult to keep up with technology change?

Christian: I don't think anyone is used to the current pace of technological change, or the sheer amount and impact of these changes. People don't necessarily understand all the implications of any given technologies, or even their basic rights relative to them. In most cases, the newly emerging technologies are not regulated or do not fall under current regulations, and the companies producing them can do pretty much anything they want. And while I'm not saying that technology companies are recklessly developing technologies that will harm parts of our society, in some ways, it's like a "wild west" out there right now.

Grush: How does that "wild west" atmosphere interfere with people in general?

Christian: You may know that I am generally a pro-technology person. But I also think that there are times when we as citizens need to be able to weigh in and express that we are not comfortable with a given technology, or a feature of a technology. But right now, how do we do that? Where do we go to voice our concerns? Or even just stop a service or feature that we don't want?

There is a real need for the legal realm to catch up with some of these emerging technologies, because right now, there aren't many options for people to pursue. If the lawyers, and the legislators, and the judges don't get up to speed, the "wild wests" out there will continue until they do.

Grush: This seems to be more than a technical or technology question. What could be done by legal professionals to understand how the law interacts with the management of new technology?

Christian: The more that legal professionals can get knowledge of what the emerging technologies are and how they might be applied, the better they will be able to manage the legal processes and help our citizens. But the legal services field is going to have to catch up very quickly, given the rate of technological change.

Grush: Where are they going to get this knowledge? Would law schools be of help?

Christian: Yes, I think that law schools can play a very important role here. And not just when students are going through their law schools, but throughout their careers, law school graduates should be able to take courses "ala carte" — as they are needed. For that matter, as the legal field becomes more multidisciplinary and the need for greater collaboration sets in, technologists and other specialists should be able to select courses to fill in their knowledge gaps as well. These types of offerings will likely have to be made online, as working professionals have jobs, families, and other responsibilities.

In higher education we realize that it can take time for programs to be developed — time for the ship to turn. But law schools are critical to this picture and we need to continue adding courses and programs to address the needs of the "life-long learner".

Grush: Are legal technologies not recognized as being important?

Christian: No, they are considered important. A recent Bloomberg Law article [https://biglawbusiness.com/international-legal-tech-conference-breaks-attendance-record] pointed out that the International Legal Technology Association's ITLACON conference [https://www.iltanet.org] broke attendance records this year. And I was amazed to read, in the same article, that the level of legal tech investment in general jumped from $233M two years ago in 2017 to $1.7B in 2018. That's more than 7 times the level of investment in just one year.

Grush: With all that investment, you'd think it would translate to changes in the perceptions related to emerging technology and the training of legal professionals to understand it, manage it, and integrate it into the way they work.

Christian: That's likely starting to happen, but I don't think that it's happening quickly enough yet.

Grush: You mentioned the need for greater collaboration earlier. Will people have new roles — with more people focusing at least a part of their career on legal technology?

Christian: I think we will see more of a team-based approach at first, to which we might apply a term we are familiar with in higher education: cross-disciplinary teams.

And hopefully there will be more life-long learners — legal professionals returning to law schools to take courses that address technology and the law — to get them the knowledge they need.

Still, the concept of having "a culture of technology" throughout the entire legal field may be the most important factor in getting us all the knowledge we need.

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