Teaching technology in a more practical way

The “laptop debate” in legal education — to allow or to ban — seems to resurface every so often. Professors who’ve banned laptops often cite their attempts to increase student engagement in the classroom and decrease non-course-related activities, such as surfing the Internet as reasons for the ban.

Students who speak out against laptop bans often feel that that they should not be penalized for other students’ lack of engagement and say that they prefer taking notes on their laptops over handwritten notes. (For some students, that laptop is a real lifesaver. Consider the story of an Arizona law student reported by the ABA Journal: waking up to find an intruder in his home, the student was prepared to hand over his money but begged, and eventually chased away, the intruder when faced with the prospect of handing over his laptop — which contained all of the 1L’s class notes!)

But wherever you may stand on the laptop debate, this is just a small component of a more comprehensive issue: Is technology focus at law schools keeping up with generations of students who are increasingly technology-driven? More importantly, do law schools even understand the technological needs and preferences of students and legal employers who are also getting more tech-savvy?

Some suggest that there is a real disconnect. In an age where virtual practice is gaining hold; where hiring committees are increasingly checking the social media pages of applicants and where most employers expect not only proficiency but also efficiency in new law grads’ use of technology, simply giving students passwords and minimal training on the main legal research databases, running the occasional Power Point presentation, and offering a computer lab for students to use just won’t cut it.

Rather, the most innovative programs and professors are focusing on involving the student: embracing technology in ways that tech-savvy students can relate to; ways that integrate technology with coursework and teach technological application; ways that help students think of more effective options for law practice management and ways that teach students how to use technology and social networking options in an effective, efficient and professional manner.

According to a July article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a University of Iowa law professor used wikis as the primary tool for organizing her employment law class: rather than assigning a textbook, she had her students research the law on their own and compile it into a 1300-page wiki. One group in California, the same article notes, teaches law courses in virtual reality using the program Second Life.

A Harvard Law professor made the ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels list partially for his dedication to “posting it all,” approaching everything from a cyber environment, as the Journal describes it, like using Twitter to teach and having students collaborate on legal documents and post them online.

In my own previous interviews with deans, Dean Matasar of New York Law School told me about the school’s plans to have first-year law students build wikis as part of their curriculum, while Dean Gaudio of Western New England College School of Law talked about the school’s virtual LLM courses. Some professors use online programs or “groups” to create a virtual classroom environment and often share some valuable “back-and-forth” between the professor and the class. Some make students draft a professional email as part of the required correspondence students have to draft in writing courses. Some incorporate hands-on experience with law practice management software, from billing to dockets.

As any pioneer is the world of legal technology will likely attest, incorporating technology in legal education is key to graduating students who are familiar with technology. Yet new grads should not only know what technology exists (legal or otherwise) and where they can find the users’ manuals; they should also know how to use technology effectively and efficiently.

There is much ado about making legal education more practical. Shouldn’t that include teaching how to use technology in a more practical way?

By Ursula Furi-Perry, career editor for The National Jurist