Developing IT Skills in a Law School

June 30, 1998

Few readers of this magazine will need persuading that new entrants to thelegal profession should have an awareness of IT generally and, ideally, a goodunderstanding of the applicability of IT to law. In this article I will explainhow the School of Law at King’s College London has sought to develop the ITskills of its staff and students. I will then go on to offer some personalthoughts on the relationship of IT to legal learning, in the hope this may be ofinterest wherever lawyers and computers collide.

It should be noted that the Law School at King’s teaches law primarily asan academic discipline. It is not a Legal Practice Course provider as such,although a number of professional development courses are offered.l1Hence, from the School’s perspective, the acquisition of IT skills should beseen in the light of the Dearing Committee report,l2which identified IT as being one of four core key skills for students in highereducation. This notion of IT being a ‘core’ skill echoes similar points madeby others concerned more specifically with IT and legal skills.l3Arguably, bearing in mind that many law undergraduates do not go on to practiselaw, IT skills should simply be seen as essential to the notion of ‘life-longlearning’, which should continue throughout a law graduate’s future career,whatever that career may be.

School IT Strategy

At its most succinct, the school IT strategy has been composed of twoelements: raising IT competency of staff, and then doing the same for students.When I arrived at the School just over two years ago I found, in common withmost organisations, a wide range of IT competence spread among the staff. Myessential task therefore was, and remains, to provide some technical expertiseand help create a culture where the benefits of IT are fully appreciated with‘best [IT] practice’ being replicated consistently throughout the School.l4The programme of raising IT awareness includes ad hoc seminars on general ITdevelopments, more structured seminars on IT and legal teaching, and trainingand support covering particular application software.

During the last few years the School has invested heavily in desktop hardwarefor all staff (52 academic lawyers and 15 administrative support staff ),although with the emphasis being on academic staff needs. It seems that,earlier, administrative staff were supplied with the more powerful hardwarewhile academic staff often had to make do with equipment passed down from theadministrators. This purchasing pattern was based on perceived need, and in someways it reflected the situation found in many law firms where (until a few yearsago) it was widely thought that fee earners did not need computers on theirdesks. These perceptions have now clearly changed: practitioners are expected touse computers as a fee-earning tool and academic lawyers are expected to usecomputers as a tool for their teaching and research.

Leveraging the Infrastructure

University computing has long since been network based, and leveraging themost out of the network infrastructure helps reduce costs. Cost control is alsoa major factor behind the serious consideration being given to the possibleintroduction of ‘thin client’ software and slim ‘net PC’ hardware.Indeed the former is already being used to deliver some computing servicesprovided centrally by the College, such as sharing cd-rom titles across thenetwork. At King’s many cd-roms are installed on a cluster of network servers.Desktop computers use ‘thin client’ software to run cd-rom sessions over thenetwork. This is a new system and it has three immediate benefits:

  • all desktop computers running a variety of operating systems can access the cd titles loaded on to the servers once they have been connected to the network
  • network licensing restrictions of each individual title can be adhered to strictly and easily managed
  • a log can be generated showing the extent to which each title is being used.

Analysis of the latter will help inform future purchasing decisions.

The School and Law Library have also purchased a range of legal cd-romtitles, ranging from traditional datasets such as law reports and Hansard,l5to the interactive Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) cd-rom (IOLIS) produced bythe Law Courseware Consortium at Warwick University. All these titles arenetworked, as described above. At the very least, the electronic collection oflaw reports can be used to ease demand for hard copy from the law library andhence remove the age-old student excuse that the case report ‘was not on thelibrary shelf’!

Using Internet Technology

The Internet was of course developed originally by academic and militaryresearchers. It should come as no surprise therefore to learn that all staff andstudent workstations are hooked up to the Internet via JANET, the nationalacademic network. All staff and students also have Internet e-mail addresses asof right. Experience at King’s has confirmed e-mail as the great IT enabler,as everyone can readily grasp the concept of sending messages and e-mailapplication software is invariably easy to use.

The College web sitel6contains a huge amount of useful information for prospective and currentstudents. Of perhaps greater significance in the present context is the Schoolof Law intranet, on which the School has web pages covering a number ofundergraduate and postgraduate courses.l7At present most of this material is simply the electronic version of coursehand-outs such as reading lists and seminar notes. At the very least this ratherstraightforward class of material in itself helps to raise IT awarenessthroughout the School as there is a clear and obvious relationship between theelectronic and more traditional hard copy, while the possibilities for extendingthe intranet’s scope soon become apparent to all.

These possibilities have already been well illustrated by two courses inparticular. The Russian Law web site is cross-linked extensively, so thatstudents can browse a wide range of useful background material about Russianlaw, economy and history. The Legal Reasoning site contains the full text of allthe Legal Reasoning lectures, seminars, cases set for student reading,l8and some additional material prepared by staff (eg ‘some principles of clearlegal writing’). The site also has four interactive online tutorials whichstudents are encouraged to do alongside their normal tutorial work.l9

Anecdotal evidence suggests that students enjoy learning electronically, andbrief analysis of School web site ‘hits’ seems to confirm the intranet’spopularity. Further analysis has also allowed us to see which electronicteaching materials appear to be used more than others (discounting the effect ofdiffering student numbers for different courses), and for seeing where the‘hits’ are coming from – halls of residence or college ‘open access’rooms for example. It is hoped that more structured student feedback will beundertaken before the close of the current academic year.

The Internet is still primarily used by academic lawyers for acquiring ratherthan publishing information, although there are now several establishedelectronic law journals available online,l10and so this emphasis may change in future. As is well known, other jurisdictionsappear to be more advanced than ours concerning the free online publication ofprimary legal material. Academics researching in fields such as InternationalHuman Rights or International Trade Law can access a wide range of primarymaterial online for free. Those concerned mainly with English lawl11are less well served in this respect. Nevertheless there is no doubt that moreuseful legal material, including primary material, has become available on theweb during the last few years as has the number of ‘value added’ web siteswhich provide legal commentary. One can only hope that the campaign conducted bythe SCL, and others, for more UK primary law sources to be made freely availableonline is successful sooner rather than later.

Partly because of the relative dearth of primary sources of law online, allSchool academic staff have access to Lexis from their desktop computer. Accessto the Lexis database is via the Internet, using Lexis client software. Underthe existing system (apparently work has begun on making the Lexis databaseavailable via web browser software)l12it was considered prudent to have the vast majority of staff trained byButterworths’ Lexis trainers. At King’s a core of dedicated Lexis users logonto the system regularly from their desktops, while others remain content toplace ad hoc search requests with the Library staff. Thus far the operation ofthe Lexis desktop scheme has cost much less than was budgeted for originally,although it still needs to be managed carefully. Sadly, fear of spiralling costsmeans students only have access to Lexis under supervision of law library staff(many in the academic community would like to see Lexis provided free of chargefor students). As one may expect, Lexis has found particular favour withpostgraduate students.

Bridging the IT Culture Gap

There is no doubt that most academic staff now make quite heavy use of IT asa ‘personal productivity’ tool. Academic lawyers use IT (sometimesextensively) to assist with their research and in the preparation of theirteaching materials. As yet, however, there is a considerable way to go beforeelectronic law materials replace, or even add significantly to, the moretraditional hard copy resources. It seems there are many reasons for this stateof affairs. It should be acknowledged that the daily struggle to keep abreast ofchanging technology, and providing a fault„tolerant computing environment,sometimes acts as a brake on technological development and, indeed, enthusiasm!But even this struggle sometimes pales into insignificance when compared toother factors. Arguably there is a cultural barrier which must yet be overcomebefore IT is applied more directly throughout the process of legal learning.

Perhaps the existence of this cultural barrier is due to the fact thatacademic lawyers, like their practising counterparts, have come to appreciatethe potential of IT rather later than those teaching and researching in otherdisciplines, especially the sciences. This rather late appreciation – which maybe summed up as an ‘IT culture gap’ – has a number of consequences, the mostimportant of which is the latent assumption throughout higher education that ITfunding is not a priority for law students. Experience at King’s suggests thisassumption holds less force than it once did. As legal academics begin toappreciate fully the possibilities that IT deployment can offer, they are makingtheir voices heard by those who control the IT purse strings. It is howeverdoubtful, to say the least, whether law schools, or indeed universitiesgenerally. will ever be able to provide their students with unlimited access toappropriate hardware. In fact the Dearing committee recommends ‘that by2000/01 higher education institutions should ensure that all students have openaccess to a networked desktop computer, and expect by 2005/06 all students willbe required to have access to their own portable computer’.l13Arguably this expectation implicitly recognises that the higher education sectorwill never be in a financial position to provide each and every student withunlimited access to a networked workstation. If so, higher educationinstitutions should instead concentrate on providing the proper infrastructurefor student IT. Arguably that infrastructure should consist of widespreadnetwork access points, suitable teaching software and staff fully committed tothe integration of IT to teaching. The latter two elements may yet prove to bethe most difficult to establish.

Preparing an interactive tutorial or cross referencing background material byhypertext links can undoubtedly be time-consuming, even when the process isrelatively straightforward technologically. The creation of useful electronicteaching materials also takes a considerable amount of thought in addition tothe more mundane tasks of logic programming or text editing. Sadly for itsproponents (of which I am one), it is often difficult to discern any immediatepedagogic benefit in the delivery of a course, or part of a course,electronically. Insult is added to the inevitable injury suffered by electronicteaching pioneers in that teaching is often seen as a secondary activity toresearch. Individual professional standing, institutional prestige and, mostsignificantly, funding, often follows academic research rather than teachingactivities.

Changing the Way Law is Taught?

Of greater significance in the creation of this culture gap is perhaps therealisation that once much of a course is available electronically it changesthe way law is taught – just as the application of IT has, and will continue, tochange the way law is practised. In both cases no-one is quite sure how theincreasing use of IT will affect the daily learning and application of the law.Richard Susskind has of course pointed the way forward, but not all shareRichard’s confidence and sense of purpose. The very act of using IT as ateaching tool, and using it with rigour, often seems to challenge manyassumptions inherent in teaching law. What is initially seen as an opportunity(a basic intranet web site could do away with the almost constant need forphotocopying) can quickly appear a threat: why bother to have a law school atall if its courses can be taught virtually? Disregarding the fact that we arestill quite some way off this brave new world of virtual law schools, I wouldargue that the widespread production of electronic teaching materials should beseen as a definite opportunity rather than a threat.

The use of IT for legal teaching can be done on several levels. At the mostbasic level, students should be encouraged to use IT as a personal productivitytool, just as their lecturers do. For example, excerpts from electronic lawreports could be cut and pasted into word processing files, which then becomethe basis for students’ own work files. I’m sure many readers of thismagazine recall spending many hours of their student days at a photocopier andthen annotating by hand the case reports photocopied. Once basic typing skillshave been learned, it’s now much easier to do all this from a networkedworkstation. Some academics have a worry that this way of working will promote a‘cut and paste’ mentality, whereby cutting and pasting takes precedence overfully comprehending the subject matter. Personally, I don’t think this willhappen. The cutting and pasting simply replaces photocopying, whilecomprehension in preparation for, or during, seminars will still have to takeplace. Moreover it should be remembered that manipulating and enhancinginformation electronically will (or should be!) a more useful ‘life-skill’than learning how to work a photocopier.

With a little thought, IT can be used more creatively so that students are‘forced’ to reflect on and comprehend electronic learning material. Forexample, electronic tutorials which are small case studies could be usedthroughout the course with additional material relevant to the initial problembeing released (electronically) to the students over the course duration. Ifthese tutorials were to have a high degree of feedback they should encouragestudents to grow in confidence with the knowledge that they are learning ‘onthe right lines’. Ideally this confidence will carry over to seminars andtutorials, as confident students are more likely to express themselves orallybefore their peers and tutors. This in turn increases the chance of classcontact time becoming true ‘quality time’, where the issues may be discussedwith greater sophistication by students than would have been the case had theybeen simply left to read and digest the standard hard copy materials. Indeedusing IT in this way may also result in staff becoming more productive andtherefore more cost-effective – a notion which seems increasingly relevant inthe higher education sector today.l14

Towards Legal Information Engineering

There are many other possibilities for applying IT to legal learning, far toonumerous to mention here.l15Suffice to say that, during the introductory IT and law training given to newstudents at King’s, I mention to students Richard Susskind’s idea of futurelawyers being ‘legal information engineers’. Students are invariably takenaback by the notion that they may end up becoming a ‘lawyer-technologist’ asopposed to what seems to be the popular view of a practising lawyer. A quiteunderstandable reaction perhaps, not least because most still take up law as analternative to becoming a professional engineer or technologist of any sort.However, there is a distinct possibility that today’s law undergraduates maynot have a conscious choice about becoming a ‘[legal] information engineer’.Arguably the impact of IT will change the lawyer’s role (and that of otherprofessionals) so ensuring this is what they will become in any event by thetime they enter the workplace. In the meantime, it is interesting to play asmall part in the IT development of tomorrow’s lawyers and observe at closehand similar efforts being made elsewhere in the legal academic community.


1.Law and law related courses of particular relevance topractitioners are provided by the King’s College Centres of European Law, andMedical Law and Ethics.

2.Report of the national Committee of Inquiry into HigherEducation, a useful summary of which, focussing on IT, can be found at the LawCTI web site, the Report itself can be found electronically at

3.Second BILETA Report into Information Technology and LegalEducation, August 1996 found at Richard Susskind’s book The Future of Law, facing the challenges ofinformation technology Clarendon Press, 1996.

4.The post of IT Co-ordinator at the School of Law, KCL hasbeen part funded through the generosity of the City Solicitors EducationalTrust.

5.CD-ROM titles purchased are: Electronic Law Reports, WeeklyLaw Reports, All England Law Reports, Justis Celex, Hansard (HC from 1988-89, HLfrom 1992-93), Eurolaw, CCH Tax Cases, CCH Company Law Cases, Current LegalInformation, Index to Legal Periodicals and Books and IOLIS>

6.The web site of King’s College London can be found at http// the School of Law web site is nested at suspect it will be easier to log on to the College site and follow the linksto the School site rather than enter in this rather long URL!

7.At the time of writing courses covered are: Russian Law,Legal Reasoning, Legal Services, Tort, Jurisprudence, EC Law and EC CompetitionLaw.

8.The full text of the cases was captured from the ElectronicLaw Reports in Adobe Acrobat format and hence displayed on screen via the AdobeAcrobat Reader plug-in. This has a number of advantages: it is cheap (AcrobatReader software is free, and Context allow free limited reproduction of ELR foreducational purposes), easy to implement and, perhaps most importantly, itpreserves the ‘look and feel’ of the original law report on screen.

9.The interactive tutorials were developed using Javascript,a commonly supported web scripting language. Although Javascript (as itcurrently stands) cannot be used for highly developed interactive softwareprograms, it is sufficient for basic interactive tasks such as testing studentcomprehension of written passages.

10.For example see Journal of Information Law and Society(JILT) at the Web Journal of Current Legal Issues at*nlawwww/.

11.It must be acknowledged that there are very few, if any,areas of English law which remain unaffected by international developmentsgenerally, and EU developments particularly, the primary sources of which canoften be obtained electronically across the web.

12.Talk given by Michael Faning of Lexis at a CTIconference, ‘New Directions in Legal Information Systems’, held at WarwickUniversity, 20 February 1998.

13.Recommendation number 46 The Dearing Committee.

14.Widdison R et al, ‘Quarts into Pint Pots? ElectronicLaw Tutorials Revisited’, 1998 (1) The Journal of Information, Law andTechnology (JILT).

15.Further information on the work being done in theapplication of IT to law teaching can be gleaned from the papers of the BILETA(British and Irish Legal Education Technology Association) conferences1995-1998. These, and much else besides, can be found at the CTI Law TechnologyCentre web site at of the papers concern the application of IT to legal teaching. The BILETAweb site itself is also worth a visit at