18 Apr 2017

Is 'legal innovation' an oxymoron?: Part Two

This second instalment of Daniel Santiago Acevedo's three-part series on legal innovation tackles the question of how we can innovate in the way we educate the lawyers of tomorrow.

Dmitriy Shironosov Dmitriy Shironosov

In the first instalment of this series, I explained the general concept of innovation and emphasised its application in the Legal Services industry. To this effect, I also mentioned that, given the complexity of explaining the concept without a context, the best way to understand this notion is to analyse it from three different and complementary angles: 1) innovation in the provision of legal services; 2) innovation in law education; and 3) innovation in Justice Administration. That said, in this next instalment, I will discuss the concept of innovation as applied to law education, and I will specially focus on showing our current state in this matter in Latin America.

Legal education in Latin America

A little more than eight years after the financial crisis of 2008, we could say that there is now a worldwide debate over where the legal profession is headed. Even in Latin America, we are starting to notice questions such as: What does being a lawyer currently imply? Or, are universities training professionals in law to respond to the needs of the current context?

A couple of months ago, the Legal Services Chamber of the National Association of Industry (ANDI) – Colombia’s equivalent to the American Bar Association – held an event about ‘Innovation in Law’, and even though the agenda was focused on the concept of innovation in the provision of legal services, some very important conclusions can be highlighted so we can understand what is currently happening with regards to law education:

  1. Nowadays, it is not enough to be exclusively an outstanding lawyer from the legal technique perspective. The market is demanding further abilities.
  2. In this sense, it is the duty of the law schools around the world to pass on these new skills to the lawyers of tomorrow.
  3. Such abilities cannot be unplugged from the market, and thus we cannot be training lawyers in areas that currently are either difficult to apply or have no practical application at all. For example, just recently I reviewed an undergraduate law program from a Colombian university, which had within its mandatory curriculum two courses of General Philosophy plus two courses of Law Philosophy, as well as a couple of Roman Law courses. In general, across all semesters, there were several courses related to matters that had no direct relationship with the labour market outside Academia labour market.

‘T-shaped’ training

Therefore, regarding the concept of innovation as applied to legal education, and in order to elaborate on what we should be doing, I will use the analysis carried out by Amani Smathers, an American lawyer  recognized in the legal innovation field, in which she thoroughly explains why and how we have to change our current education of future lawyers model. Smathers mentions in her analysis that nowadays we have professionals in law who have had strictly vertical training or ‘I-shaped’ training. Such training instils extensive legal knowledge (regardless of its relevance) but little familiarity with other fields or professions. However, the 21st century demands that future lawyers must have a mixed training – that is, both vertical and horizontal encompassing the unique knowledge of the legal profession together with broader expertise in other fields.

We can call this kind of training ‘T-shaped’. The vertical axis, which is the longest, would correspond to legal knowledge, given that our ultimate goal is to educate lawyers. However, it is also desirable that legal professionals have mastered concepts of project and finance management, data analysis, technology and business strategy by the time they complete their training. In other words, we want to produce lawyers that are truly ‘multidisciplinary’, with skills that are useful in the current industry context. However, this is not easily achieved.

The role of research 

So, what can we do? The good news is that at present we can count on think tanks specialised in studying what our new lawyers should be learning and how we should be teaching them. Among such institutions are the Legal Research and Development Laboratory at Michigan State University and the LawLab at Chicago-Kent Law School directed by Daniel Katz, to name just two. The work of these think tanks are highly important in the present day, since their findings help show law students that their professional options after graduation are not limited to either being a lawyer in a Big Law firm, at a multinational company as an in-house counsel, or as an attorney in the public sector or the judicial branch. These think tanks teach the future professionals that they can innovate and create disruptive business models for the provision of more efficient and accessible legal services with the assistance of new information technologies. What we need, then, is more universities in Latin America and worldwide committing themselves to an effective change in their education programs so that our future professionals in law can truly respond to the market needs.

Harvard University offers another great example. In 2014, a study from Professors Coates, Fried and Spier surveyed more than a hundred lawyers from some of the biggest law firms in the US as to what they thought current students at Harvard Law should be studying. In most cases, their answers were inclined to emphasize courses in finance, accountability and business strategy, to the point of considering these courses more important than intensive training in legal matters. This study was an excellent way to determine which subjects are more relevant in a specific market to improve the employability of the students, and which courses should be removed from the study plan.

Moving forward in LatAm

I am sure that in Latin America we are already beginning to move in the right direction. For evidence of this, we can look at the Law School of Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala, which recently undertook debates regarding innovation in law through the first Beyond Law event. Furthermore, they also carried out a workshop in business strategy and legal services structuring, which was likely the first workshop of its kind in Central America. However, while it’s true that we are making some progress, it is important to keep in mind that in LatAm we need to accelerate the restructuring of the legal education. The future and its opportunities do not wait, and the sooner we act, the faster we will be able to deliver the benefits to the next generation of lawyers.

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