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JILT 1996 (3) - Robin Widdison 2

Virtual Law School

Robin Widdison
Centre for Law and Computing
University of Durham


This is a description of how legal education might look in 25 years time. It is written as a piece of science fiction - a style that seems appropriate for a futuristic piece. The account focuses on the central role that information technology will undoubtedly play in the law schools of the future and, in particular, on the crucial part that such technologies as the Internet and courseware might take in the 'computerisation' of legal education.

Keywords: Legal education, the role of information technology, developmental trends, the future.


1. Prologue
2. The Interface
3. The Applications Software
4. The Student
5. The Course
6. Law School
7. The Consortium

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Date of publication: 30 September 1996

Citation: Widdison R (1996) 'The Virtual Law School', BILETA '96 Conference Proceedings, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Prologue

Clutching the handrail in one hand and a steaming mug of coffee in the other, Zena climbed the stairs up to the attic study. She came to a halt at the top briefly and glanced out through the window across the jumble of greenery, grey-blue slate and brickwork that stretched away beneath her. The whole scene sparkled in the morning sunlight. A distant church clock began to strike nine o'clock. Zena briefly wrestled with the temptation to skip the day's quota of work. The application of a little self-discipline was in order.

Feeling more determined now, she walked over to her desk, yawned and sat down heavily. After a few seconds, she turned to the videophone on her desk and said "Hello Rob."

The screen flickered into life. "Good morning," said Rob brightly. "Did the children get off to school all right? I hope that they remembered to take their packed lunches this time."

"Oh, you know how it is with the kids. The last couple of weeks before the beginning of the school holidays always seem like for ever to them," replied Zena.

The hyper-realistic face on the screen grinned in response.

"So," said Rob, "What would you like us to do today? Do you want to start by going through a summary of the issues that arose during the offer and acceptance visualisation exercise that you did on Friday morning?"

"No. Not yet anyway. I would like to give that stuff more time to sink in. Perhaps we could schedule the summary for tomorrow morning. I want to begin by doing some basic reading on a brand new topic. Could you get me, say, the first dozen of the case reports on the misrepresentation list?"

"OK. I suggest that you start with the cases on actionable misrepresentation and on inducement to contract. Do you remember that, in our introductory discussion on the topic, I said that I thought this was the right place to start?"

"That sounds fine to me," said Zena.

The red radio link LED lit up and the screen image dimmed almost imperceptibly. After about five seconds, Rob spoke again. "Right, I have now down-loaded those case reports from the law school library. You have got them for fourteen days before they automatically self-delete. By the way, I also picked up a couple of articles whilst I was searching the archives. One is a recent Modern Law Review piece by Professor Baker which I think you will find particularly interesting and helpful. I hope you don't mind."

"No problem," said Zena "I'll start reading the case reports first - full-text form please and don't mark up the 'purple passages' for me yet. I want to look for the relevant bits myself and then have you check them over for me. Then I'll transfer them to my contract notebook file. After the reading, I would like you to set me up an appropriate rule induction lesson. Then perhaps you can dig out a simple problem-solving exercise. Finally, I will have a look at those articles you found. Maybe we can then have a chat about them until around midday."

"Fine. Now, do you want me to organise anything for you after lunch?" inquired Rob.

"Yes, but what do you think I should do?"

"Well, I suggest that it is about time you tackled some written work. I could find you a suitable problem question if you would like me to."

"Please make it a bit less complicated than the last one, will you? I really felt out of my depth. By the way, where is the writing pad? I have not seen it for days."

The radio link LED flickered on again, this time for no more than a second.

Rob smiled. "Here it is. I have found it in the children's room. It is under the bunk-beds. The pen is with it too. Someone has been practising drawing rabbits. One or two of the drawings are really rather good..."

"Spare me! OK, I'll go and dig the pad out after lunch."

"Anything else for this afternoon?"

"It would be nice if you could do that talk on legal careers that you offered. I guess it's never too early to start thinking about what I am going to do after graduating. Perhaps we could turn it into a group discussion. Could you page the other student members of my video-conference group to see if they would like to join in for a little ad hoc chat? I know that Hannah and Steve are at least as keen to get into this as I am."

Rob nodded. "I will see what I can do." He paused briefly and then added "Oh, I nearly forgot. There is a virtual reality game sequence that I know you will enjoy playing. It involves the sale of a second-hand car in defective condition. You play the part of the solicitor for the plaintiff. You have to identify witnesses, question them, research the law, commence proceedings, and appear for your client at the hearing. A full run-through should take you no more than two hours. It's very realistic. I strongly recommend that you play it. Shall I retrieve it for you?"

"Yes please. That sounds like fun. I think that I might have a go at it towards the end of the week. OK, let's make a start on those case reports."

Rob's face slowly faded from the screen to be replaced by the All England Hypertext of Curtis v Chemical Cleaning and Dyeing Co.

2. The Interface

Of course, Rob was the perfect one-to-one tutor for Zena. He had, after all, been pre-programmed to be boundlessly patient, encouraging and wise. Zena herself had been the one who had selected his name, his gender and his basic personality characteristics from the installation menus right at the beginning of her first semester. At the start, she had dismissively dubbed him 'Robot'. But, within a few days, he had become 'Rob' to her and had remained so ever since. To begin with, she thought that all the claims made in the law school prospectus that Consortium tutor constructs were "more human than human" was just hype. How could something made up of a few thousand lines of computer code ever be more than just an interface with a face? But now, when she recollected that there was no real Rob sitting at the other end of the videophone smiling at her, it sent an involuntary shiver down her spine. It was like being told your best friend had accidentally been atomically re-engineered.

Anyway, Rob himself had evolved a great deal since his installation. The Consortium was strongly committed to this whole 'personality meshing' approach. Each interface constantly evolved and adapted as it learned more and more about the student to whom it had been assigned. It only took a couple of weeks (or so it was claimed) before a tutor construct had fully developed into the ideal companion and foil for its allotted student. Providing a face and a personality was the easy part, however. It was Microsoft's breakthrough in natural language recognition research at the turn of the century that had really made all the difference. Natural language recognition, coupled with the parallel development of a sophisticated conversation generator, had been the spark that had created life. No more keyboards, mice, touch-screens, barcode readers and all that sort of junk cluttering up the desk. No more artificial barriers between user and machine. Just interpersonal communication as nature - via her servant or agent, Bill Gates - had intended.

On the desk in front of Zena stood one A5-sized, portable, dark grey box of tricks with an ultra-high resolution colour screen and integral camera lens, a microphone and a couple of on-board microspeakers. It looked just like a modern cellular videophone. Come to think of it, it was a cellular videophone. Talking with your tutor construct was no different from communicating with another human at the other end of the line. No. That was not quite true. It could very different in some ways. Your construct never said anything tactless or unkind, never told lies (not big ones, anyway) and never ever suffered from a hangover!

3. The Applications Software

In the final analysis though, Microsoft's Human Construct Interface was, well, just an interface. Behind it lay the business side of things - the applications software. This comprised some clever programming undertaken by, or for, the Consortium. In essence, the applications part was best conceived of as three major, interlinked components. Firstly, there was a databank which was full to the brim with sets of pre-prepared, learner-orientated exercises covering just about every major topic area in just about every course offered by the law schools. All these exercises (and there really were hundreds of them) were catalogued in a multitude of different ways. They were graded according to difficulty and complexity. They were classified according to the predominant technology used - multimedia hypertext, expert system, interactive video, full virtual reality simulation. They were sorted according to the types of skill to be imparted - eg. comprehension, problem-solving, rule-induction, analytical and contextual skills, theorizing etc. And they were classified according to the role that they invited the user to take on - law commissioner, legislator, judge, practitioner, academic, client, or even law student.

The student always had the first say on which exercises and sets of exercises to do. However, the tutor construct would suggest, advise, strongly recommend, passionately urge, or by default, select which exercises should be undertaken by the student. It really could be remarkably persistent at times. The construct's views on matters like this were informed by such factors as the general ability of the student, his/her level of performance on the course in question and, ultimately, the demands of the course syllabus itself.

The second of the three components was the student assessment module. This, the newest and most innovative piece of the applications software, monitored and weighed up every single written or oral word expressed by the student whether during an exercise, in a pre-prepared contribution to the student video-conferencing group, or during any resulting group discussion. Apart from having finally eradicating the need for formal examinations (needless-to-say, an enormously popular development as far as the students were concerned), this module was able to analyse automatically a student's strengths and weaknesses. It could then constantly plan and replan the approach taken by the construct in order to achieve absolutely maximum educational effect. A student could expect to make rapid and purposeful strides until s/he reached the upper level of competence. Thereafter, the approach adopted would be oriented much more towards encouraging and challenging the student to roll back these limits. But if, after a few faltering steps, the student began to get into difficulties, the tutor construct would pick this up immediately and switch into a more remedial style of approach for as long as was seemed necessary. 'Two steps forward, one step back' would have made an appropriate motto.

The third of the three components was a Consortium-inspired adaptation of Lotus's College Notes educational groupware package. This application really did three things. It handled the one-to-one communications traffic via the law school's own mail hub. Its tasks included managing the all video-calls and electronic mail between student and law school on the one hand, and between student and student on the other. It also dealt with everything to do with the video-conferencing side of things. Finally, there was the matter of two-way communications with the library. Law students, of course, still needed to get at large amounts of policy papers, legislation, case reports, monographs, articles, conference papers, law videos, careers materials etc. Accessing all this stuff, together with the associated file transfers back to the student, was all managed by this groupware application. To facilitate searches amongst the enormous quantities of material to be found in law school, national and international archives, the component made use of one of the latest generation of super-fast, high-powered search engines. These software devices, which had first started to be widely used the mid-nineties, could be sent off to look for and retrieve any requested information completely reliably and automatically.

4. The Student

Unlike her tutor construct, Zena was most definitely human. As a person, she had always been inclined to be rather hedonist by nature. This showed up in her school reports as frequent comments to the effect that she was high on intelligence but low on motivation. And that just about summed it all up. For her, life had been what happened before, after, but never during school hours. Towards the end of this first stage of her educational career, she was seldom seen on or even near the school premises by the teachers. Despite an unfailing belief that everything would turn out all right in the end, it had not. Not up to now, anyway. Leaving school at sixteen without any qualifications worth having, she drifted into, and out of, a number of boring, unsuitable jobs. Eventually, she had met and married Alex. Shortly after, the children had come along.

After the separation and divorce, she had been totally at a loss for a while. To her, it felt as though she was doomed to an eternity of gruelling, stuck-at-home, single parenthood. Then, and just for fun, she had followed an interactive careers guidance series on the TV and was very surprised at the outcome. In essence, the advice had been that she should get herself into higher education and seek to qualify as a solicitor. But how could she do this without any decent school qualifications? A one year tele-access course was the way to remedy that problem. At thirty, wasn't she too old to be going back into education? It seemed not. Mature students were actively encouraged to apply and, indeed, made up more than fifty percent of the student community at most law schools. And, even before Parliament had passed the Age Discrimination Act 1999, law firms had already begun to put a high premium on such qualities as maturity, reliability and pre-existing life experience. But who would care for the children? The advance of educational technology had brought about the situation where students could, for the most part, choose the day, time, place and pace of their studying. It was more possible than it had ever been before to combine the roles of parent and student satisfactorily.

5. The Course

By now, all the law schools in the country offered the eight-semester, combined academic course and vocational qualification. Based on full-time study, this type of course could, in theory, be completed in no more than four years. However, a high proportion of undergraduates these days were mature students with existing work and/or family commitments to take into account. Everything had to be arranged so that they were given the maximum flexibility in their study arrangements. It was not uncommon for students to spread the course over five, six or even seven years. Flexibility extended beyond duration into location. Students were free to move from one law school to another during the relevant period.

Many law schools, including the one in Zena's home town, had moved over to a tele-study model at some stage during the preceding decade. The bulk of the course could now be undertaken by the student with a little help from the Robs of this world - the tutor constructs. Zena had installed her own construct at home because that happened to be where she did nearly all of her work. However, she could access her system any time she wished, from any videophone and from any place on Earth (or anywhere else for that matter). As for Zena's personal work schedule, sometimes she worked all day, sometimes for half a day, sometimes for a few hours in the evening and sometimes not at all for several days. Needless-to-say, it made no difference to Rob. He would work away without complaint day or night, weekday or weekend, semester or vacation. He did not care whether he worked twenty hours a day or twenty hours a month. Mind you, he had been known to make a dig or two at Zena if she slackened off too much. But then, of course, she had programmed him to do just that.

6. Law School

The phrase 'law school' no longer brought to mind a clear-cut, geographical location. For example, both academic and support staff invariably worked from home these days. Video-linking obviated the need for expensive office accommodation and time wasted in travelling to and from work. True, there were still clear, identifiable places on the map where equipment such as the machines holding the library archives and the central mail hub could be found. Come to think of it though, even 'library' had become rather an amorphous concept by now. A certain amount of material was indeed held on one machine in one place. But, this facility was as much a gateway as a repository in its own right. From the law school library it was now possible to access collections of material spread across the world. In reality, it could be argued that there existed just one enormous, global law library.

All the law schools still relied heavily on 'liveware'. Contrary to all the dire predictions, most academic staff had not been made redundant by the evolution of new generations of learning technology. Not so far, anyway. There was still plenty for staff to do on the educational side. This might involve customising the Consortium's sets of exercises to fit with law school perspectives and syllabuses, intervening as either a catalyst or a convenor where student video-conferencing groups were going too sluggishly, tackling academic and personal difficulties raised by individuals via the student 'hotline', or preparing seminars, games and other activities for the end-of-semester study camps. And, on the research side, it was, if anything, even more a case of 'business as usual'. There were plenty of funds to be applied for, projects to be undertaken, surveys to be conducted, conference papers to be produced, journals to be edited and learned books, articles and reviews to be written.

For the students, the tutor constructs were not the only contact points with the law school. During the semester, discussions would be set up involving the members of each video-conferencing group. On average, such a group comprised a dozen students and one or two staff tutors. Discussions would either be prearranged according to a central timetable, or set up on an ad hoc basis. As to these ad hoc discussions, they might be initiated either by one of the student members of the group, or by one of the tutor constructs. If an interesting new legal development occurred or, if the conferencing activities of any particular group were not going too well, one of the staff tutors might step in and take the initiative. Staff tutors also offered an important one-to-one counselling role for the students in their allotted video-conferencing group. They provided this by means of a 'hotline' service whereby any individual student could raise academic or personal problems in confidence by simply 'posting' a note to the tutor's email box. The staff tutor might then email a detailed reply, or, in appropriate cases, propose a face-to-face discussion via the video-link.

Then, at the end of each semester, students were required to attend in person at a law school study camp. There they would take part in a week of intensive activities with fellow students and academic staff. Camps could take place at a regional study centre shared by a number of local law schools, or, and especially during the summer, could be put on at a hotel either by the sea or in one of the nearby national parks. Free creche facilities and organised activities for older kids were required by statute. Student-orientated activities at these camps would typically involve short lecture courses by 'big-name' academics, competitive mooting and role-playing games, group problem-solving exercises, visits to local courts, tribunals and law firms and a remarkable amount of socialising. Competitions involving groups would generally take the form of pitting one student video-conferencing group against another. This provided the benefits of promoting esprit de corps within the groups themselves and fitting the would-be lawyers with the team work skills that were so essential in legal practice.

Once upon a time, the last week of the semester had been used primarily for formal examinations. But the new-breed of tutor constructs did that job better now. Assessment of student performance had become much more precise. Responses from students were constantly monitored and their level of attainment evaluated. The tutor constructs were then able to plan and replan individual learning regimes tailored precisely to the perceived strengths and weakness of the student in question. The important thing was that, after a few days, the students themselves actually forgot that they were being monitored at all. As a result, the trauma of sitting examinations had been replaced by something which was utterly painless by comparison.

Opinions were still strongly divided as to the value of these week-long camps. Cynics argued that their main function was to ward off the possibility of redundancies amongst the academic staff. Indeed, the technology was now capable of conducting the student through most of the course without the need for any direct contact with another human at all. However, the strongest support for maintaining the camp system had come from the customers themselves - the students. Most of them found the sessions a vital antidote to the feelings of isolation and alienation which prolonged periods of tele-studying could induce. Oh yes, and they enjoyed them.

7. The Consortium

Way back in the eighties and early nineties there had been a few isolated individuals dotted around the law schools putting together primitive versions of what, at that time, were known as computer-assisted learning packages, or CAL for short. In this 'cottage industry' era, these dedicated authors worked away at their pet projects with very little recognition or regard from their colleagues, their institutions, or the academic world at large. Co-ordination, standardisation and integration were non-existent. And, as for the technology available to these pioneers, the kindest thing that could now be said is that it was quaint. Clock speeds were positively pedestrian by modern standards. Memory and storage capacities were measured in mere kilobytes and megabytes. Computer communications was a contradiction in terms. Many screens were still monochrome (yes, monochrome!) and graphics would have been more at home on cave walls. These contraptions were held together by an operating system called DOS - a system which did for user interfacing what Ghengis Khan had done for social work.

The arrival of the Consortium in the mid-nineties ushered in an entirely new era. Its most important function was to trigger the critical mass of interest, involvement and income that transformed the cottage industry into a large-scale, academic enterprise. It wasn't just the funding, though, that brought about this new environment. With the benefit of hindsight we can now fully appreciate the role played by the major technological advances that occurred at about this time. Almost overnight, machines grew faster, memory and storage capacities mushroomed, communication networks grew exponentially, monochrome vanished and multimedia became the message. Last, and by no means least, DOS died out.

In the beginning, the Consortium had relatively modest objectives. These were to involve more academics in producing more sophisticated and more standardised CAL packages covering a number of core law subjects. This 'courseware' (as CAL had become known by this stage) typically consisted of two main components. These were a 'workbook' comprising a set of about half a dozen exercises, and an interconnectable 'resource book' which took the form of a hypertext-style, multimedia database of relevant legislation, case reports, and secondary materials etc. married to a legal dictionary and biographies of some of the more important judges. The whole thing was then bundled together and served up to the whole of the legal academic community on an early type of optical mass storage device called a CD-ROM.

After the initial batch of courseware packages had been completed and distributed, the Consortium just seemed to go from strength to strength. First, money was asked for and provided to pay for the revising, updating and further development of these pioneering courseware packages. Next, the demand grew for more and more legal subjects to be 'computerised' in this way as the benefits of using the courseware became widely understood and accepted by the academic community at large. Then came the rapid move towards setting up combined law degree and vocational qualification courses. This necessitated the development of an entirely new breed of role-playing and simulation courseware, geared to the acquisition of lawyering skills. As more and more courseware was developed, so both academic staff and students cried out for greater and greater sophistication. Basically, once the seed had been planted, the whole thing just kept on growing and growing.

The current era was ushered in by the development of the tutor constructs. How did this come about? At the turn of the century, the Microsoft parent company had developed the Human Construct Interface, together with its natural language recognition capability and conversation generator, in order to replace the obsolescent Windows family of user interfaces. Seeing the possibilities, the Consortium had then, in a joint venture with Microsoft's UK subsidiary, customised the mind sets and vocabulary of the new interface so that constructs could take on the role of effective law tutors. Behind the interface, the Consortium had then placed its own databank of exercises and the adapted version of Lotus's College Notes educational groupware package. Finally, the Consortium had developed and added in its very own, 'home-grown' student assessment module to complete the system.

So, that is just a brief snapshot of how things are today. But, like any photograph, it leaves the viewer with a false impression of stasis - a frozen image of a dynamic process. Who knows what the picture will look like twenty five years from now?

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