BA Law with
Information Technology -
The LMU Experience
one semester in
Christopher J S Gale
Senior Lecturer in Law
Leeds Metropolitan University
This article attempts to explain how the degree of BA Law with Information Technology was conceived and developed during Academic Year 1997/8. The motivation and rationale as well as the operational reality are explored.
Once the degree was validated and given a target intake, the students had to be recruited through the clearing system. Comment is made about how, one semester in, these students are beginning to settle down and have a feeling for their course of study.
The IT content of the course is explored and comment made as to why these particular modules were chosen for inclusion, how the modules can be harmonised to give greater coherence to the degree and what it is hoped will be achieved by the students in studying these areas as well as how the whole course will fit in the inevitable job hunt.
This is a Commentary published on 26 February 1999.
Citation: Gale C, 'BA Law with Information Technology - The LMU Experience one semester in', Commentary 1999 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/99-1/gale.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1999_1/gale/>
There had long been anecdotal evidence in the Law School of there being a market for a degree which was still a 'qualifying law degree' for professional purposes, but was at the same time rather broader in approach than the pure LLB. From the point of view of a student 'belonging' to a particular School, a joint honours degree seldom seems the answer and this type of degree could threaten the 'qualifying law degree' status of the final outcome if there were a true 'joint' (i.e. 50/50) input. So a degree, based in the Law School, with at least enough legal input to make it a qualifying law degree, but with enough relevant input from elsewhere to make an impact on the students was what was required. In institutional terms, if the seven Foundation law subjects were to be allocated 30 point double modules each and if an 'introduction to law' course was to have another 30 points, the maximum available for non-law input would be 120 points, meaning four double modules or eight single modules in the course of a three year full-time degree. This meant any resulting degree would be named 'law with...'.
1.2 Reasons for choice
In purely practical terms, the School of Information Management is located in the next building to the Law School and there was already established a fair amount of cross-school service teaching. In idle moments the idea of a 'Law with Information Technology' degree had been aired as had a 'Law with Accountancy' degree with the School of Accounting and Finance. 'Ownership' of the degree, which for the professional reasons outlined above would seem to need to rest with the Law School proved less of a stumbling block with the School of Information Management, but as there seemed little governmental or institutional will to create new undergraduate courses in recent years, nothing more than first thoughts were exchanged. In late 1997, when the University was encouraged to make further undergraduate development and suggestions for new courses were sought, this one seemed at least a little further down the development road than most, and we were blessed with teams from both Schools who had a will to devise a meaningful course, largely from continuing provision in the two Schools, as quickly as possible. There was a very genuine feeling that such a degree would be marketable in general business terms and that, for professional legal practice, it might give students a genuine advantage in the job market of a qualification at least partly based in another sought after discipline.
Although we had little idea if and when the course would be validated, whether there would be any students wanting to take it and what, if any, our target intake would be, we prepared the course for validation in the early part of 1998 with a view to it running from September 1998 in full-time mode at least. It would also be validated to run part-time over four years, like our LLB degree. The time for inclusion of the course in UCAS handbooks was long gone, so it was accepted at an early stage that the majority of first year students, if the course were to run from September 1998, would come via the clearing system.
1.4.1 Year One
As all full-time students at this University study four double modules each year (eight singles) for three years, it seemed sensible to plan the new degree along the lines of LLB so far as possible. This would mean a saving of resources in that lectures combined with LLB would be possible in the Foundation subjects at least. Two first year LLB subjects, Obligations One and Two (Contract and Tort) seemed obvious first year choices for the new degree, now known colloquially as 'LAWIT' and it seemed appropriate that there should be a double module Year One input by the School of Information Management. The modules chosen were Information and Organisations and IT Solutions, both Level(Year) One modules offered by the School on other undergraduate programmes. Rather than having 'Law and Legal Systems' as the fourth double module, this LLB course was seen as being a little restricting for the LAWIT students, so a 'Legal and IT Skills' module was devised incorporating most of the formative Law and Legal System points necessary to enable students to acquire lawyerly skills, but also incorporating a greater amount of introduction to IT - both hardware and the more law specific software applications that LLB students did not always have time to investigate. So popular did this become that this introductory course is likely to be taught on both LAWIT and LLB in 1999/2000.
1.4.2 Year Two
In Year Two students are to study Criminal Law and European Law with their LLB counterparts, pick up Public Law taught in Year One to LLB students and deal with Networked Information Resources and IT Law - the first from the School of Information Management portfolio of courses, the second being a new course based on service teaching done already by Law School staff for the School of Information Management. The teaching of courses 'out of their level' was an institutional rather than professional matter and, by virtue of different expectations and assessment, was addressed to the satisfaction of the University Academic Quality Department.
1.4.3 Year Three
Year Three LAWIT students would pick up Property Law and Equity and Trusts taught in Year Two on LLB, and would also take a double module in Strategic Management of Information Resources. The fourth double module would be filled by an option selected from a number of law/IT/combined subjects.
The new course passed University validation procedures in July 1998, had already received professional confirmation that it would be a 'qualifying law degree', had a Course Leader in place and the promise of an Administrator by October 1998. All that we then needed were students (20 had been decided as the recruitment target) and we would have what we believed was the only course in the country configured so as to have a dedicated cohort, a qualifying law degree, and yet up to four double modules input from another professional specialty.
2.1 Full Time
It was resolved to recruit as nearly as possible to LLB course requirements with the acceptance that, through clearing, we were likely to be dealing with a number of students who had missed hoped for grades for some reason, so, with a relatively small target, interviewing students in person or on the telephone could make sure that we offered places not to students who had missed LLB places and wanted any route to a qualifying law degree, but those who had some genuine interest in - or even expertise - in the Information Technology part of the course. We were pleased to find the course full in a few days, and, with target increased again, 29 places were offered. 23 of those students enrolled in September and with two late recruits, a cohort of 25 students embarked on the course.
2.2 Part Time
It had been hoped to recruit a part-time cohort of students as well. Due to the late validation, we did not really believe that it was possible, but included LAWIT on the advertisement for part-time LLB which went in the local press at the beginning of September 1998. 15 students were needed to make the enterprise viable and as, in the end, only 10 were prepared to commit themselves in the short timescale available, the course did not run. All 10 are , however, still keen to take the course and so it is almost certain to run from September 1999. What did surprise us at this time was the level of interest shown in the advert. Over 60 information packs for LAWIT were sent off (in comparison with less than 50 for the established 'traditional' LLB) and a number of local firms of solicitors showed interest and seemed to be thinking about sponsoring unqualified staff to study on the new degree where they had shown no such inclination for LLB. Bearing in mind that Leeds seems to be acknowledged as England's 'second city' for law these days, this development was exciting and gave us some definite targets for follow up advertising in the future.
3. The Course
The course started in its full time mode in September 1998 and the end of the first semester has now been reached. Initially, students seemed a little 'phased' by being in Obligations One and Two lectures with 100 LLB students, being in IFO (Information and Organisations) lectures with other students taking that subject and only being a discreet lecture group for the Law and IT Skills class, but this seems to have settled down, aided no doubt by the fact that the cohort splits into two seminar groups of 12 and 13, against the Law School norm on LLB of around 20. One student did seek to transfer to LLB, but, conversely, two have sought to transfer to LAWIT from LLB. The 'back road to an LLB for people who do not have LLB entry requirements' fear that some staff had has not materialised and the students are beginning to share our enthusiasm that this degree may not only give a rather wider career choice than traditional LLB, but, inside the professional job market, may be a Unique Selling Point for our students - they will not be just a graduate from 'one of the old Polytechnics' fighting for a training contract with hundreds from a similar background, but someone with appropriate and adequate legal grounding but also some specialist training in another field which is becoming ever more vital in the business world but which is still a mystery to many solicitors.
4. The IT Content
It will be on the relevance of the content of the course that its reputation will develop. Basic hardware and legal applications software is gradually introduced in the Law and IT Skills course so that the beginner should be able to cope while the IT 'expert' should not find it too boring as there is the legal side of matters to cope with. Students from all backgrounds from complete IT novices to relative experts have all said they have enjoyed this course to date.
4.2 Information and Organisations
The Information and Organisations module has as its aims: 'to examine the information requirements of organisations - its members, suppliers, customers and clients. It investigates the impact of variables such as medium, organisational structure and culture, and formal and informal communication channels, on information flow and access'. As part of the assessment for this module, students have to 'find' an organisation and apply the theory they learn in University to its structures. The organisation which have been amenable to answering student queries over the years have been largely commercial rather than professional and the LAWIT students were shepherded down this route. While this has proved valuable in its own right, greater integration of the module into the degree as a whole seems to demand at least the possibility of students taking a firm of solicitors as their 'organisation'. As most firms have moved away from the 'senior partner says so' style of management to one more recognisable in other types of business, there is no reason why this development should not take place and firms of solicitors approached to be 'LAWIT organisations' for next academic year have on the whole seemed keen. This provides another link with LMU Law School and a direct point of contact for LAWIT students at an earlier point than LLB students which could work to their advantage in the final job hunt.
4.3 IT Solutions
The second 'IT' module in Year One is 'IT Solutions'. Its stated aims are 'to build upon the student's skills and competencies in the use of applications software to develop an appreciation of the potential of database software as an aid to organisations, together with skills in customising applications to meet particular user requirements. The module investigates how organisations can benefit from more effective use of IT packages to increase the productivity of users.' The transferability of this into practice is obvious - often solicitors realise technology ought to be able to make them more efficient, but do not have the knowledge of what to acquire. Salesforces know what they want to sell but not the needs of individual practices and a potentially expensive mismatch can occur. To have qualified in house lawyers with the skills this module should begin to equip them with should help eliminate such mismatches. Again, a selling point is afforded to LAWIT students which is not available to LLB students. If a firm is so rooted in the past that 'only an LLB will do' for its trainees, little is likely to move such bigotry. However, firms looking to trainees' skills on top of legal qualification should see LAWIT graduates as a boon in respect of their IT problems/clients. In a similar way, more enlightened practices have recently realised the value of PgDip students who have a grounding in law but a degree in another discipline which can be a very useful addition to practice expertise.
4.4 Networked Information Resources
The first Year Two IT module studied is 'Networked Information Resources'. Its aims are 'to develop familiarity with, competence and good practice in the use of networked information resources such as: Internet, CD-ROM, and on-line systems for locating and retrieving sources of information'. Things which all lawyers should be equipped with in the twenty first century, but which will be sadly lacking in many recent and probably future LLB graduates - another selling point at recruitment for LAWIT students.
4.5 IT Law
The second IT module in Year 2 is 'IT Law'. This is not available to LLB students at present although may become so as an option in due course. The aims of 'to develop student understanding of the legal issues and problems surrounding information technology in an organisational context' are self explanatory and should be entirely in keeping with LAWIT student ability and aspiration at this point of the course after the previous IT input.
4.6 Strategic Management of Information Resources
The compulsory double module in Year Three of 'Strategic Management of Information Resources' aims 'to focus on the role of information as a corporate resource and asset, to be managed and exploited at a strategic level. Underpinned by advances in, and applications of, information technology and systems, it links the themes of intra- and inter-organisational communication, organisational culture, developments in working patterns and practices, and emphasises the importance of an information policy to sustain an organisation's corporate competitiveness.' This is useful to the student not only in terms of legal practice, but also in terms of understanding the cultures of commercial clients of a legal practice and has obviously wider application for the student who is not looking to practise at all but to go into the wider commercial world.
The optional subjects include Business Communication Technologies, Cyberspace and Society, Information Services for Business Commerce and Industry, and The Management of Change, as well as the usual run of purely legal options and interesting 'linked' cross disciplinary options such as Intellectual Property. There is also the possibility of undertaking a 12000 word dissertation which could be on a theme spanning the two disciplines which may, if of sufficient quality, impress potential future employers.
Although the course was put together fairly quickly, using mainly existing components from the Law School and the School of Information Management, we believe that it has an internal coherence and has not been 'put together with an eye to the main chance' or 'on the back of an envelope'. Sensitive fine tuning such as including firms of solicitors in the 'organisations' for the IFO module increases that coherence. The genuine interest shown by local solicitors has enthused the staff and that has filtered to the students. As a genuine course in its own right, not a sort of afterthought from LLB, it is hoped that it will grow and gain a reputation to be proud of. Applications through UCAS for full-time 1999 entry are running at some 30% of LLB, no mean achievement given that it is a course with no proven track record, it has only 40% of the places we have for LLB even in 1999/2000, and given that the UCAS documentation went to press before validation in July 1998 and so shows the course ass being still 'subject to validation.' Entry requirements are the equivalent of three grade C's at A-level and we hope to raise this to mirror the BBC expected for LLB. This having been said, current evidence shows our first cohort who largely do not quite meet future intake requirements are having no more difficulty with their course than LLB students are on that one. We feel privileged to be in at the beginning of an exciting project and are sure that many other Universities will be watching the progress of our course with interest.