Spotlight on Sections: Technology, Law, & Legal Education

Spotlight on Sections: Technology, Law, and Legal Education


By Barbra Elenbaas

AALS welcomes the new Section on Technology, Law, and Legal Education.
The purpose of the Section on Technology, Law, and Legal Education is to promote scholarship and the communication of ideas, interests, and activities among members with respect to ways to: (1) use technology to enhance teaching; (2) prepare students to use technology effectively in their learning and future practice; and (3) equip students to create technology to improve our legal system (including improving access to legal information and services). The Section will also make recommendations to AALS on matters of interest with respect to how technology is impacting our teaching and the practice of law.
In this edition of “Spotlight on Sections” AALS spoke with Michele Pistone, chair of the new section.

Michele Pistone, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

Michele Pistone, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, Chair

Michael Bloom, University of Michigan Law School, Chair-Elect

Michael Bloom, University of Michigan Law School, Chair-Elect

How did the idea to create this section come about?
I was an economics major in college, and a few years ago I started seeing changes that got me thinking about the business model and economics of legal education. I wanted to understand situations like the drop in applicants and interest in law school. I think the first book I read back in 2008 was Richard Susskind’s The End of Lawyers. What he said about the standardization and commodification of legal services was interesting to me, and led me to think about how technology is changing the practice of law. That, in turn, led me to the work of Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen. His writing is about how changes in technology and business models disrupt industries, and how hard it is for incumbent institutions—which are embedded in the existing culture of an industry—to adjust when there are larger forces imposing change on them.
This initial reading made me think it was important to understand how technology is changing the practice of law. As law professors, we need to understand those changes if we are to figure out how we’re going to incorporate them into our curriculum, so that we can prepare our students to prosper in the new market for legal services.
I also started researching technology and its impact on higher education. In my view, legal education will soon experience the most profound changes since Dean Langdell in the mid- to late 1800s. Over the last few years, the focus of my scholarship has been on these changes and how they will impact the legal education business model.
How is technology changing the practice and business model of law, and how is that translated into the classroom?
There have always been pressures to become more efficient through the use of technology. By the beginning of my own legal career, word processors had replaced typewriters. Westlaw and Lexis were available. I started as a corporate associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a big Wall Street firm. We didn’t have computers at our desks. When I would draft a document, I would write it by hand, and then walk it to a secretary or, in the evenings, to a pool of word processors, who would then type it up. Then I’d review the document, make handwritten edits, and make another walk to my secretary’s desk or to the word processing pool. When the pool was busy, it could take hours just to get a typo fixed.
The difference between now and then is that the pace of technological change has accelerated, and so have the consequences for lagging behind. More important than the adoption of any one technology is the development of a mindset that looks forward to technological change, and that consciously strives to overcome practical and cultural obstacles to mastering new technologies. Since many attorneys traditionally have looked upon technological change with about the same enthusiasm as they have for getting a tooth pulled, I understand that prescribing cultural shift will not be easy. But the consequences of failing to try to change in this way could be fatal to a practice, and knowledge of that fact can help to concentrate the mind.
The implications for legal education are vast. At the most basic level, it becomes an imperative for law schools to teach students how to use technology to make their work more efficient and more effective.  We must teach not just the rules on discovery, but how to use predictive coding to handle discovery requests. Opportunities to give students a technological advantage exist also outside of the traditional subject-matter curriculum. For example, we assume today that our students know word processing, but very few know all the word processing shortcuts that, when they are used in practice, could save them hundreds of hours each year.
Beyond making sure that students possess state-of-the-art technological knowledge, law schools also need to think about how they can inculcate into students the forward-looking technology mindset that is crucial to a successful legal practice. Law schools can do this through professors modeling the mindset, particularly in clinical settings; through hiring, by making technological knowledge a factor in the selection process; and through adding technology-heavy topics to the curriculum.
It’s a very interesting and exciting time to be a law professor.
With the legal profession becoming more technology based, what can legal educators do to stay on top of the latest advances?
That’s really what our section is all about, so follow what we’re doing! Attend our programs, which are designed for everyone across the legal academy. We hope that law school administrators, librarians, doctrinal faculty, clinicians, legal writing instructors, and everyone should think this is of interest. This section is a space for everyone who is interested in the future of legal education and how to better prepare our students for that future.
In this section, we’re hoping to foster scholarship in this area so there are more available resources. A few years ago, I helped the Journal of Legal Education produce a collection on how technology is changing the practice of law. We’ll think about ways to collaborate with publishers to come up with venues for scholarly research on this topic.
Another thing faculty can do to stay on top of things is to watch carefully how their own students are using technology and think about new ways they can incorporate technology into their own teaching, based on what they’re seeing.
Law schools should also seek to bring in people who understand the role technology is playing in changing the practice of law and legal education. I think the natural place to think about that is if you’re hiring someone for IP or a technology clinic. But it should go beyond that, as there are a lot of people out there who are technologically savvy and understand how technology is changing our society, but who are not necessarily coming from a field we associate with technology.
What do you hope to accomplish with this section? What are some of the early ideas for section activities?
One of the section’s first projects is a webinar series for law faculty to teach ourselves and the community about how technology is being used in legal education. In November, our webinar will be on the Legal Tech Audit. It is a product that was developed by the general counsel at a company. He found that a lot of his outside counsel weren’t familiar with the basic functions of Microsoft Word, so he came up with this audit and had all his lawyers take it. He basically said to the firms that he was working with, “If you’re going to put associates on any of my cases, they need to have passed this audit. I don’t want them spending needless time on, for example, formatting a document when Word has built-in templates and formatting functions.”
The tech audit has evolved and a lot of firms are using it. All the students I have in my clinic this fall passed the audit. The section decided to start the webinar series with the basics. It’s a tool that we’re using every day.
There are some faculty members in Australia who are successfully using Twitter in their legal education, so we’re going to have them do a webinar on how to incorporate Twitter. We’ll also have one on how to make educational videos.
Our goal is to do one webinar per month during the academic year. We’ll record them and put them online for people to view even if they can’t attend the live event. We hope to create an ongoing library with relevant topics.
You host a video series called LegalED on teaching. How have these videos affected your own teaching? What else have you learned as the result of this effort?
I’ve been interested in this idea of how we can scale what we do in legal education. I think there are many ways we can use technology to be more effective, bring in more learning competencies, and expand the tasks that students do.
One common thread in legal education, higher education, and education generally is the move away from the “sage on the stage” and the move toward the professor as more of a facilitator, mentor, or coach. The way our traditional law school classes are structured, a lot of time is spent delivering knowledge. One of the things I’m trying to do with LegalED is figure out how to move some of that knowledge delivery to something that’s more scalable, with the hope of freeing up classroom time for more problem-based learning or discussion or coaching.
Another reason for starting LegalED was to foster a community of professors interested in sharing ideas on how to teach differently, how to develop learning outcomes, how to provide formative assessment, and so on. I believed that if we’re going to move in that direction, and if we want professors to think differently about how they use classroom time, we also want to educate professors and ourselves about best practices. We need to learn about technology and how things are changing in the practice of law but also about how education is changing.
I started by making some basic videos about pedagogy directed at law professors themselves. Then, I organized two conferences at American University Washington College of Law—we call them “Igniting Law Teaching.” They’re styled as TED talks, so they’re short, well-rehearsed talks on particular aspects of legal education pedagogy. Those videos are available for professors to watch at their own pace and on their own time.
I also directed a series of videos at the Clinical Conference in 2015. The project was sponsored by the AALS. We recorded 11 short videos on different aspects of legal education. There are videos about assessment, feedback, learning outcomes—all the issues law professors are currently grappling with. We created this series so professors can hear from and learn from each other on those topics.
Tell us a little about your program at the upcoming AALS Annual Meeting.
Our section’s inaugural program is on the topic of using technology to advance our learning outcomes and assessments—things that a lot of law schools are focused on right now because of the change in the ABA accreditation standards. We thought that would be a relevant topic to a range of people. Michael Horn, who is one of the co-founders of Clay Christensen’s Institute for Disruptive Innovation, has agreed to speak and moderate the panel.
How did you go about forming this section? What was the process?
It happened relatively quickly over this summer. The idea for petitioning to form this section started to gain support in the technology committee of the Section on Clinical Legal Education. That committee met at the May AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education and we realized the audience for what we were doing was much broader than just clinicians, and that a new AALS section would be the perfect place to continue the conversation. We decided to pursue it, identified a cohort of people with the same interests, and came up with a purpose and mission statement for the group. The very first thing I did was check the bylaws to see what you need to do to create a new section. For that, you need a successful petition with the signatures of 50 professors from at least 25 different law schools. So we created a form that we emailed to different listservs, asking those lists to send it along to their colleagues. Within about two weeks, we had close to 75 people join the petition. The next step was to draft our own bylaws and attach the list of petitioners, and send the whole thing to AALS.
I was so impressed with how quickly AALS and the Executive Committee moved on approving it. I believe within a month or six weeks from initially filing the paperwork we had already gotten provisional approval. It was an easy, stress-free process. And there, again, technology made it easy!
What could someone joining the section look forward to in terms of their active participation and opportunities for leadership roles?
It’s a new section, so we’re open to all ideas and new ways of thinking. I want to foster experimentation, sharing, and collaboration. We invite the community to share ideas with us.
There will be the Executive Committee, or at least some section leadership. We’re also going to create committees. There will likely be a committee to schedule and run the webinars. We may also form a committee to survey professors to figure out what technologies are already being used in legal education. Running a survey would be another way for someone to get involved.
Another idea is to start or contribute to a blog. We might have, on a running basis, columns about technology and the law or technology and legal education. We’ll likely have section awards, so another way to get involved could be on the awards committee.
There are more and more people teaching courses about (or at least involving) technology and the future, so there is talk of starting a curriculum bank. A few months ago, I read about J.B. Ruhl from Vanderbilt’s new course called “Law Practice 2050.” I immediately emailed him and asked him to send me his curriculum. Current section members have also discussed a literature search or a bibliography of the must-reads in this area. We will present these as options, and to the extent people are interested in doing it, we will support them.
Those are some thoughts, but I want to stress that the section is totally open to new ideas. One way to share any ideas you have would be to come to the business meeting we’re having at the end of our program at the Annual Meeting. You can also email me directly at [email protected].
What ideas and activities have you seen work in other sections that you would like to bring to the Section on Technology, Law, and Legal Education?
The webinar idea is a great example that the Section on Clinical Legal Education started doing a few years ago to much success. Awards can be good in terms of highlighting and drawing attention to innovations that are happening in legal education and technology. A lot of sections are doing programming in collaboration with a journal, so that the papers are all published as one collection. We want people to write articles about the things they’re doing in this area so that more people have access to it.
We might also think about new things to do. I’d like to identify the resources members want, and then figure out how to make them accessible to as many people as possible.
Is there a long-term vision for what you would like the section to become?
I’d like the section to encourage law schools and professors to understand how technology is impacting the practice of law, to understand and figure out how to make students aware of these changes, and to help our students thrive in the new legal world. I also want it to help faculty learn about, think about, and facilitate innovation in terms of how to use technology to scale what we’re doing while making teaching more effective and efficient.
A few years ago, I was involved in a group that realized there were a lot of people interested in this and we had to figure out a way to come together so everyone isn’t doing the work on their own. I guess that’s one of the goals here: to use AALS, this great base that everyone is a member of, to have a conversation about how to use tech most effectively in legal education in a way that promotes our goals. And our goals are to make our students as prepared as they can be for the practice of law. We as law professors need to understand how practices change so that we can best prepare our students. Ideally, the section could be a resource to make it easier for law schools to innovate in these areas so that every school and professor isn’t working from scratch, but can build off the best practices of what other schools and professors are doing.
This is new to everyone, so if we can collaborate and share resources and ideas, I believe we can catapult what’s going on at this very important time for legal education. Sometimes it’s only one or two people at a school who are interested in this, and they might feel alone at their institution. One purpose of this section, at the beginning, is to create a community of likeminded people to give them the support they need to move forward. Ideally, the section could be a resource to make it easier for law schools to innovate in these areas so that every school and professor isn’t working from scratch, but can build off the best practices of what other schools and professors are doing.
The time is ripe and AALS is the perfect host, since they bring together everyone in the academy. Technology is something that impacts everyone in the legal academy. My vision for this section is that it becomes an advocate, a support network, and a resource for crowdsourcing so that we’re thinking about it collectively, as a community.
Michelle Pistone at the 2015 AALS Clinical Conference

Michelle Pistone at the 2015 AALS Clinical Conference

AALS Sections provide a forum for law school faculty and staff and to connect on issues of shared interest. Each of the 101 AALS sections is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of AALS sections and how to join, please visit