The Training of Lawyers in the Virtual Age

November 1, 1998

Why virtual age? Because that is the age into which we are told we are beingpropelled in these last years of the second millennium. That is, I would guess,a statement with which many will readily concur, but how virtual will the worldreally be, legal and otherwise, in the next three to five years? Not all we arebeing told about the computer revolution will come to pass and much we cannotforesee will happen. The ‘Information Superhighway’ was described by BillGates three years ago in his book The Road Ahead. This is, of course, awhole communications and information exchange infrastructure with universalstandards and a huge bandwidth (the Internet as it currently exists is merely aprecursor of it); and then he predicted that it was a decade away. It iscertainly not here yet. I am a firm admirer of the Internet but it hassignificant limitations both in terms of structure and technology – as anyonewho has tried to download video on it will know. As Mr. Gates said, ‘TheInternet has enormous potential, but it’s important for its continuingcredibility that expectations aren’t cranked too high’. The virtual age iscoming. Already we are seeing the beginnings of social change, but manydevelopments along the road are going to be dead ends – and the trick is toavoid investing heavily in a route that turns out to be a wrong turning.

The legal world – the lawyer’s office, library, research, and communicationand information networks, and the whole judicial and courts system are notescaping the same pressures that have faced box games, the postman, the libraryand the entertainment and information industries. And these pressures also weighheavily on those who train the lawyers of tomorrow. How do we educate, train andprepare students (and also practitioners) for a world which is so uncertain, inwhich society – both domestically and commercially – is floundering about,much as mill owners did at the invention of the steam engine. And there seemsevery prospect that the virtual revolution will create as much change as did theindustrial revolution. At the College of Law, our business is to train lawyers,both prospective lawyers and practitioners, and to do this we have to try topredict the legal infrastructure changes of the next three to five years so asto plan to introduce the training required at the right time. At the moment thistask is harder than it has ever been. As a separate, yet inextricably linkedtask, our own training methods must also change to make use of the revolution incomputer-based teaching technology.

The Shape of Things to Come

So what is the shape of things to come? The starting point must be to try toenvisage the nature of computer usage that will be prevalent over those fiveyears. It is unnecessary here to rehearse all the statistics – numbers ofcomputers per household, access to Internet, multimedia capable machines etc. Asample may however be helpful. A recent survey, publicised in the Daily Mirrorwith the headline ‘More homes now have a computer than a dog’, indicates that25% of households have a PC and about 8% have access to the Internet. We are afair way behind some other countries; in the USA the figure of PC ownership isaround 40% and Norway comes out top at 46%.

In Britain the Government has made its position clear in its paper ‘OurInformation Age’. This shows that they have adopted a target that by 2002, 25%of dealings with the public will be capable of being delivered electronically.In addition we have the widely publicised and ambitious plan for the NationalGrid for Learning for schools. So far as the legal infrastructure is concerned,the Government’s manifesto made a categorical commitment to developing acommunity legal service. In the consultation paper ‘Civil Justice in theInformation Age’, it is suggested that IT may have a central, possibly dominantrole in this service. A website will be created for those with a legal problemand this will provide access to a vast library of electronic resources. Onlineguidance will be given through kiosks or terminals in courts or shoppingcentres. There will be online support for advisors, telephone call centres togive advice, video conferencing with advisors in the voluntary sector andfinally online access to a network of legal specialists (giving advice on apro-bono basis, of course).

The forthcoming revolution in the civil justice system is also identified bythe report as requiring heavy reliance on IT. The Internet is put forward as thepossible mechanism for providing advice and documents which will be completedand delivered to courts via this medium. Somewhat more controversially, thepaper suggests that face-to-face hearings may be replaced to some extent bymultimedia files. This may require lawyers to send to the court the bundle ofdocuments and written submissions, suitably hypertext linked, together withvideo submissions of their case. Then, of course, there is the possibility oftrial by video conferencing. If all this presents cultural problems for lawyers– what of the judiciary? The document contains the statement that ‘abouthalf the judges in England and Wales currently use IT’; although there is nodescription of what they use it for.

There is also a general prediction which shows no doubt as to theGovernment’s view of the future: ‘Within 10 years and probably much less, theoverwhelming majority of people in England and Wales will have access to whatwill be a much enhanced Internet and World Wide Web which will become a naturalplace to go for all types of entertainment, information, guidance and services’.Which brings us back to Bill Gates and the ‘Superhighway’.

But will the PC be the future platform of the delivery of the superhighway ina virtual world? The obvious contender is digital TV. There is a statistic whichis often quoted with much confidence although I am not sure of its validity: onein four of the world’s population have access to a telephone, one in 100 haveaccess to a TV and one in 10,000 have access to a PC. Even if the statistic isapocryphal it would not be surprising if the advent of the web phone does notproduce the most common eventual champion of the delivery platform for theinternet. Certainly the commoditisation of telecommunications is arguably hereand competition will ensure cost is driven in only one direction.

Preparing for the Future Now

The superhighway does not yet exist and at present we are in an era ofoffline/online competition for the delivery of material. Certainly when onecompares the effective video/audio delivery and telecommunications cost of theInternet with CD-ROM or DVD one is faced with the conclusion that currentlythere is no contest in this medium. Looking at education and training, recentreports have indicated that European expenditure on multimedia training willgrow from $780m in 1997 to $6.3bn by 2002 and that CD-ROM will continue to growby 50% a year for the next five years reaching 30% of the overall market by thatdate. On the other hand, online education and training – currently in itsinfancy – will grow at 75% per year for the next five years. But of course themediums can work together drawing on the strengths of each. Already commercialtraining providers are developing mixed packages for staff training deliveringaudio/video on CD-ROM in a ‘pint glass’ and enabling the text to be‘sucked up through a straw’ online as and when required.

For the College of Law there are two issues to address: to what extent shouldthose who come to us for preparation for this brave new world be exposed to ITas it is used or will be used in the workplace; and how best to use IT systemsto aid the learning itself. Clearly a marriage of the two will enable us toachieve more than the simple addition of the two parts, because the wholevirtual experience adds up to re-inforcement of the new office/business climateof the future. Our conclusion was that we needed to develop a learninginfrastructure that:

  • enabled the delivery of training and education and allowed the experience of IT systems
  • would be acceptable as an alternative to traditional means of teaching
  • was exciting and dynamic enough to attract students and tutors alike and to spur them to the further development of this medium in the future.

Educationally there were clearly an enormous number of concerns in takingsuch a step. We owe a great deal to all the pioneering work that has beencarried out in this area by others. The pedagogical goals of a course involvinglaw, be it academic or vocational, almost always include the impartation of theknowledge of black letter rules, law and legal principles. There is asubstantial body of research which indicates that computer-assisted instruction,when employed in college classroom teaching, may improve learning whilesignificantly and consistently reducing the time for instruction. Teaching usingthese systems has been employed for some time in many teaching institutions,notably in the USA, and there is a body of research material on these systems.In this country, perhaps the best known system – which is almost exclusivelytext-based – was IOLIS, developed at Warwick University.

Our conclusion was that we needed to replace some of the didactic teachingaspects of a course of study with audio, video and graphic computer-basedmaterial – bringing the lesson and the tutor to the student rather than theother way around. We also needed to place the student in a virtual learningenvironment with directed research from text-based materials delivered bycomputer (textbook, cases and statutes and subordinate legislation, precedentsand documents). In addition we wanted to enable learning re-inforcement bygiving the student the opportunity to answer questions delivered to him or herby the computer. But we wanted to go further than this. We also wanted tointroduce video clips of dramatic reconstructions of trials and the views ofpractising lawyers and judges to the students to enable them to receive these aspart of the course. Finally we wanted to be able to track precisely what thestudents were studying and how they were using the material.

However, we regarded it as extremely important that the face-to-face elementsof the course should remain where this added value to the learning experience.So our philosophy is that workshops, seminars, skills training and small groupwork should remain and increase in number as should the opportunity forone-to-one sessions without the need for extra teaching resources. Essentiallywe wanted to become even more student centred in terms of learning and in termsof the location of delivery. As travelling becomes more costly, difficult andtime-consuming so students require home working opportunities.

Two things needed to be put in place: the training materials and thecomputers on which to run them. Our advantage is that we can control both tosome extent. We have provided a significant number of computers to our studentsat our premises and we can assume that a growing number have access off-site toa computer of a probable minimum standard. The software can therefore be devisedto a specification which is relatively low to ensure it runs on almost allmachines.

We started last May by developing one CD-ROM which was used within anemployment law course and which satisfied all our requirements. We are delightedit won an award. We are even more delighted that it proved a success in traininga small cohort of students in last year’s employment law elective on the LPC.This year will see more pilots in more courses as we seek to learn and developthis system. We are moving slowly but we have every reason to believe that weare now on the right road to the virtual future. But we are only too well awarethat we don’t have a route map – and wrong turnings are only too easy to take.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authorpersonally and do not necessarily represent those of the College of Law.