Future of Legal Education and Law Practice: We No Longer Know How They Want To Know

information fire hose

Rob Reynolds over at Xplanazine has a great post called "The Five Laws of Product Development for Education in the 21st Century" that I would like to use to riff on legal education and law practice.

1. We No Longer Know How They Want To Know

Legal Education and Law Practice have had an electronic component in the research area that predates the web. I recall in 1988 when I was the computer guy at Chicago-Kent, giving out our seven Lexis passwords to all students so that they could do legal research from home. Today, all law students have 24/7 access to the near entirety of case law, citation systems, statutes and regs. This is available to attorneys as well for a price, but an increasing amount of this material is cheap or free via government fed or advertising supported websites.

This latter availability is important because it is also available to the rest of the world as well.

Books are still paper-bound, but there have been forays into ebooks in the past (Folio anyone?) and the emergence of companies like VitalSource and Fourteen40 seem to indicate that an increasing number of paper casebooks will be available in electronic format in the future.

Law Office Management and Case Management software has been around forever, and I have seen several open source projects starting to cropup that serve this vertical market as well. The presence of open source alternatives is sometimes an indicator of the commoditization of a marketspace.

A couple of years ago, I started to say things in my presentations like "Everyone Should be a Lawyer". It was meant to be provocative, but it’s more true than ever. With the fact that everyone can represent themselves in legal matters, everyone IS a lawyer already – albeit an inexperienced or uninformed one.

State and County Law Libraries are on the front line of this and from lurking on their discussion list and being a member of the AALL-SIS devoted to these folks, there is a trend of fewer lawyers using these libraries and a huge increase of pro ses or self-representing litigants showing up and asking for help (pdf).

Combine these two notions – that e-filing on the web will open up a gigantic aggregatable marketplace for everyone to participate and that everyone CAN participate and there will be tremendous market pressure for those participants to be less experienced and less uninformed.

This is what I call the coming age of Legal Literacy.

E-filing is to law practice what blogs are to journalism – with one very important difference. Without the JD, you cannot represent someone else and there is that wide and opaque space called "unauthorized practice of law" if non-JDs or automated systems attempt to give legal advice to someone else.

The problem is what constitutes legal advice and what constitutes legal education? There’s the opportunity. There are all sorts of ways to learn more about the law without going to law school, but this area has been barely scratched on the web. You could say its too hard to teach amateurs about the law, but who would have thought that so many people would have so much technical literacy or that so many people are playing journalist on evenings and weekends either (i.e. 30 million blogs).

Legal Literacy is in for a perfect storm on the web. Law is both technical and social. You can win your case if you have the law on your side or if your arguments are persuasive and you can avoid trouble or affect behavior with social engineering. The threat of legal action has always been the nuclear option in business negotiations. It is ripe for dis-aggregation as the rest of the populace realizes that lawyers have been using more fine-grained tools forever like negotiaion, alternative dispute resolution or just plain understanding the "source code" of the system to make it work. Shout out to Professor Lessig for that last sentence.

Code is Law on the Internet, but Law is Code for Society and Lawyers are Hackers.

With e-filing and self-representation, we can all be hackers and isn’t that a scary thought. .

E-filing and the resultant surfacing of how the courts work (or don’t work in some cases) will bring to bear an entire marketplace of ideas to rid the system of inefficiencies and unfairness. The Net hates inefficiency and tries to route around it. I am not saying that we are headed towards a utopian situation. I am saying that the system is due for a shake-up and we do not know how it will shake out.

How can we teach law students about that today? We don’t know and that’s the point of this first law of product development.

I will follow this thread in future blog posts as I look at the other four laws.

Image by Eric Molinsky who does great artwork for CALI lessons. This one is from Internet Legal Resources – Free Resources.

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