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JILT 1996 (1) - Yvonne Nobis - Comments

The Second BILETA Report
into Information Technology and Legal Education

Comment from
Yvonne Nobis

University of Oxford

Please note that the comments below are limited to undergraduate legal education.

Minimum standards of Computer Competency

As a prerequisite for specifying those information technology skills which it is desirable for law students to attain it is necessary to define the objectives of legal education, (which as the Committee suggests may vary according to institution and stage of legal education).

However in terms of such skills there has to be a distinction between :

  1. That which is desirable and that which is realistic (especially considering the financial constraints under which higher education operates)
  2. Those skills which are specifically applicable to legal education and those which are more general.

A consequence of 2 above is that those skills which are more general in nature should either be left to the prerogative of the student or to their future employer or the university generally.

An apt example is word-processing skill. Undoubtedly it is desirable for students to be able to word process documents . However such a very general skill can surely not be justified as a goal of legal education in its own right., even if such training is provided outside the law school (e.g. by a dedicated programme run by the computer services at the behest of the law school).

However in all three course models of legal education as categorised by the Committee (the pedagogic, the research - based and the profession based model ) the ability to produce documents electronically is set as a minimum standard which should be met. Moreover it is suggested that all assessed work should be word-processed!

Similarly the use of electronic communication by students is desirable, however even in terms of professional practice we do not teach out students how to conduct a telephone conversation! Admittedly the first time that students may encounter such a media is at the undergraduate stage, however there are usually institutional training facilities/packages which they can avail themselves of.

Computer Assisted Learning

The CAL packages developed by the Law Courseware Consortium are

"in the opinion of the Committee, the most important developments in information technology in legal education."

I find this contention this problematic. It sadly reflects the problem of teaching ever increasing numbers of students with more limited resources (although effective implementation of these may result in a higher per head cost). However there is (anecdotal ) evidence that in some institutions such CAL programmes are being used as a substitute for teaching contact hours, not as part of a curriculum designed for their integration. There is also the issue (that is often assiduously avoided ) that CAL programmes really only offer objective reasoning questions, albeit that such questions are presented in a novel manner!

This does not mean that we oppose the introduction of the use of information technology in legal education: the use of hypertext based packages offers a radical departure from traditional methods of approaching legal texts, (the best example is undoubtedly the on-going "Folio Views" based project at Chicago-Kent). Another example is the "resource book" in IOLIS , undergraduate students at this institution (where IOLIS is available as an additional networked resource) show much greater enthusiasm for the resource book section of IOLIS than for the "work books".

I would suggest that the most important change in legal education in the near future will be a consequence of the increasing amount of data stored in electronic format. (aknowleged in the Follet Report) The widespread use of Information Technology has now penetrated all branches of the legal profession to a such a degree that the Lord Chancellor s Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct recommends all undergraduate law students should be able to:

"demonstrate competence in retrieving, and assessing, analysing and using legal texts, information and argument including information technology skills".

Date of publication: 7 May 1996

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