Female entrepreneur working late in office. She is sitting, using her laptop to try to solve problem with code.
Secret code: tech is a new legal avenue © Getty

For the past six years, Georgetown University Law Center in Washington has held Iron Tech Lawyer, a competition where teams of students compete to develop legal apps before showing them off to a panel of judges.

At the beginning of the semester, teams of students are assigned to work with legal services organisations and, using software packages, coding and more, build a program which will provide easier access to justice.

Law firms are increasingly embracing technology and hiring coders or artificial intelligence experts to help them automate routine work once undertaken by junior lawyers. A number of schools are responding to this by introducing technology-focused topics in areas like cyber security or the law of robots, or by creating practical, skills-based modules.

The Iron Tech Lawyer competition expects students to address a thorny legal problem, such as navigating the law around veteran disability benefits. “This is a very complex area of the law . . . but it can be reduced to an app that can walk through a person who has claims to benefits and come up with their entitlement,” says William Treanor, dean of Georgetown Law.

Vermont Law School also runs a course where students have to translate a legal problem into an app or prototype. The work is not only practical but academically challenging, says Oliver Goodenough, director of the Center for Legal Innovation and professor at Vermont Law School. “Students benefit because if you are exporting your knowledge, you need to know it completely — there is nothing like creating a piece of software to show what you don’t know.”

Some law schools demonstrate a greater degree of comfort with technology in law. Georgetown lets would-be lawyers learn to code using Python programming language, and students can simulate applying the law during a cyber attack exercise. The school even has a link with engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study the legal and technical aspects of privacy problems. The goal “is not to turn lawyers into technologists but to give them a literacy in technology, and so they feel comfortable talking to engineers”, says Mr Treanor.

He adds that technology is constantly changing the law. “It’s creating new areas of practice that did not exist 10 years ago like cyber security and data privacy,” he says. “It’s creating questions in traditional areas of the law, so for example are Uber drivers contractors or employees — that kind of question. Even 10 years ago those who graduated from law school spent all their time with millions of documents that discovery required — and now some of that is more likely to be dealt with by algorithms,” he says.

Daniel Rodriguez, dean of the Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern University, says that his school is encouraging links with other faculties such as engineering. He points to the NUvention programme, where law students form teams with their counterparts from medicine, the MBA course and engineering to create a medical device. “Some 75 per cent of inventions will end up as learning tools and 25 per cent will end up being the basis for business plans,” he says.

There are broad social considerations. Mr Rodriguez says that IT is changing human behaviour in fundamental ways and it is important to “not just understand the technology under the hood” but also to understand the ethical issues around it too.

Tanina Rostain, a professor at Georgetown Law, says that technology and law are becoming much more closely combined and IT experience can help students stand out in the jobs market. “For traditional law firms it’s good to have students who know their way round technology,” she says, adding that some law firms are now hiring for new roles such as legal solutions architects.

However, there is concern that other law schools, such as those in the UK, are some way behind the US. Richard Susskind, a technology adviser and co-author of The Future of the Professions, says the global legal profession is on the brink of unprecedented upheaval and believes some of the more repetitive work in law — such as reviewing documents — will soon be automated at a much cheaper cost.

In a lecture entitled “Upgrading Justice” given last month, Prof Susskind praised the “many exciting research centres and initiatives in US law schools”, but complained that in many UK law schools, “law is being taught as it was in the 1970s”, with no focus on new areas like AI or globalisation. “It dismays me and worries me more than anything,” he said.

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