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JILT 1996 (1) - John Wright - Comments

The Second BILETA Report
into Information Technology and Legal Education

Comment from
John Wright

Assistant Director of the ILTU
Law School
Hull University

Overview

Although its objectives and scope emerge slowly throughout the document (esp. 2.2 and 2.4), this BILETA report appears primarily to be in the business of setting standards for the provision of Information Technology related facilities to staff and students of Law schools. The business end of the Report is recommendation for student to machine ratios and for standards of training.

Hardware recommendations

The recommendations for procurement are probably in the right ball park, although the text of the report fails to be persuasive in justifying the expenditure -especially since it recognises the need for quantitative studies which have not yet been designed or undertaken.

Training recommendations

The recommendations set a minimum necessary and a maximum practical level for training. The huge difference between these levels means that it is very likely that somewhere between the two, an appropriate level lies.

Customer centred business - student learning outcomes

The tone of the Report is technology driven. This approach is now out of favour with business analysts. The focus should be to prove the value which is perceived by the customer, and to orientated all aspects of the business process to delivering value to the customer.

Our students expect and demand a high quality educational outcome of the courses that we provide. The provision of technology may be more or less important in facilitating this outcome. In the circumstances where resources are specially tight, and particularly capital resources, the case to be made for investment in technology must be solid and convincing. It must be evident that the consideration of the student is central to the consideration.

Questions which arise with regard to the BILETA consultative report are as follows:

  • Is the assumption that CAL materials will be used by students justified?

CAL packages are available throughout the humanities. It is difficult to justify any special case without good evidence of special utility.

  • Should so much weight be given to the assumption that our students are heading for careers as solicitors?

The report states that the key core skills which are to be imparted include "reasoning and textual analysis"(section 2).

Law Graduates at large

It goes on to state that "there are new skills which have come to assume a special importance in the lives of lawyers". This must be emphasised to mean lawyers as graduates rather than practitioners. IT skills will be vital to Lawyers with designs on entering any sector of the economy. So will reasoning, textual analysis and interpersonal skills.

Training and transferable skills

The academic part of the legal education is a training course neither in legal practice nor use of certain packages. Just as the rote learning of cases and statutes is becoming less important to the law degree, the learning of Microsoft trivia should not replace it. If skills are to be taught they should be transferable. These points are indeed made in the report, and their emphasis is important.

Training in legal research

Those students who do intend to practise or join academia, should certainly have the opportunity to understand the what specialist support is available to the lawyer. The important storage/retrieval systems both on-line and on CD-ROM are in this class, as they are for academic study in all of the humanities. Unlike the position in North America, the cost structure of access to Lexis prevents it being a realistic resource for undergraduates' general research. The cost and benefit of other resources with respect to their paper equivalents deserves critical analysis.

Training in running a small business

The report mentions that Law firms use spread sheets in managing their business. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it is hardly a sufficient justification for procurement and training. A course on bookkeeping and other general skills including spreadsheets might be popular, although such a course would be hard to place in the main stream of a law degree.

Education in basic computer science - the blue sky solution

Ideally, all students should be able to avail themselves of an academic understanding of computer science from the appropriate faculty. A deep understanding of the nature of computing platforms and computer packages is the best way to provide the confidence and analytical skills which facilitate the most effective and least frustration in the use of technology. This level of understanding is vital to teaching and practice if the uncritical approach to procurement of the hobbyists and gadget freaks (who nowadays inhabit law institutions in similar numbers to the equally dangerous technophobes) is to be avoided. Such an option might reasonably be available in a modular degree to all humanities students, including law, just as courses in foreign languages are already popular.

  • Should the acquisition of hardware lead the recruitment of support staff, or should the reverse be true?

If a Law School is to buy a significant collection of hardware and software, it must realise that it will need someone to look after it. This is a job which is beyond the administrative responsibility of the computer enthusiast from the academic staff. A large institution might need one full-time equivalent person to cover staff, postgraduates and undergraduates. Maintenance, support and security may indeed dominate the cost of IT as the economics of mass production drive other costs down. The current funding situation means that institutions are unlikely to look enthusiastically at the increase in headcount for incidental members of staff. Such requests will need to be accompanied by rigorous, not anecdotal, justifications in teaching and research outcomes.

  • What do students use email for?

The advantages of email are that it can be as immediate as an internal telephone and in academic institutions it incurs zero marginal costs. For staff for whom networked computers are available in each office, this medium has immediate value.

Students on the move

For students who work in libraries or who must roam campuses and university zones of the city, the value of the internal mail system cannot necessarily be assumed to be of quite the same character as an office 'phone. The common room pigeon hole is more likely to be the appropriate paradigm. For e-mail to be really useful the users need to access the service regularly throughout the day. A common example for use of email is the arrangement or cancellation of a seminar at short notice. The procurement and support requirements become very large and cost possibly exceeds justification. Facilities would have to cope for peak demand and be available in all locations in which students are required to be present. This is not to contend that such internal e-mail is of no value, but that a reasonable perspective be maintained.

Advantages of e-mail for staff

E-mail encounters are likely to occupy less time of a member of staff than personal visits by students. To admit that technology is used as a means to avoid spending time chatting and dealing with students as people is perhaps too lavish with the truth. If this is a necessary economy, it must be ensured that such encounters uncover the range of difficulties at a stage early enough not to render them false economies. There is the danger that staff will see the introduction of technology as removing a problem such as the need to chat with students. Often no such result is achieved. The problem re-appears in another guise. The bottom line is that education is a labour-intensive activity, although technology can help the efficiency of the management of time.

  • Can solicitors be persuaded to provide computers?

There are some institutions throughout the country which extract significant amounts of money from the profession. These Law Schools are the focus for recruitment by the rich city firms. For other institutions in the situation where firms see an abundant supply of unemployed law graduates, finding such beneficence in likely to be more difficult.

In paragraph 5.1, the Report considers the possibility that Law Schools could provide valuable consultancy in the use of computers to solicitors in practice. If such consultancy is practical, firms should be educated into paying market rates for it. If opinions are written by members of a Law School for the benefit of a business enterprise, it is customary to demand the transfer of significant amounts of money in consideration.

Summary

This report makes recommendations which encompass plausible goals for law schools over the next five years. But it needs to convey more vividly the satisfaction of the educational needs of our students.

In addition to this concentration on the customer and our core business, the report needs better logical organisation, more forceful argument, and credible quantitative evidence.

Interested members of staff should expect the committee to produce the excellent case for funding which will be needed if a University is to lavish additional resources on a library based subject without obvious special features.


Date of publication: 7 May 1996


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