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Despite changes to legal technology, Australian law schools remain wedded to an old fashioned teaching model. Shutterstock

Teaching law students creative skills could save the profession from automation

Making science for people is a series that explores how humanities, arts and social sciences expertise is applied to problems typically corralled into the science and technology space.

Today’s article involves technology, but in a legal sphere. It looks at how training lawyers in the “human” capabilities of creativity, empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence could provide them with skills that aren’t at risk of automation.

Around 40% of all law jobs are at risk of automation, according to a 2016 Deloitte report.

Traditional skills expected of law graduates are increasingly going to be undertaken by new AI-driven software. Basic skills such as database research and document drafting are already being automated by large Australian law firms.

The race is on to go beyond basic skills to automate higher-order thinking itself. Law firms want a piece of software that can find the relevant law and apply it to a client’s unique set of factual circumstances. In some cases this already exists.

The application of law to facts has been a basic skill taught to law students in Australia for more than 100 years. So if this skill is automated, what does that mean for the future of law schools, law firms, and law graduates?

Read more: That contract your computer made could get you in a legal bind

A new kind of lawyer

According to Richard Suskind, a prolific author on the future of law and legal technology, it is no longer enough to teach the old basic skills of lawyering in the new, AI-driven, automated economy.

We need a new kind of lawyer who is trained not only in the use of coding and legal technology, but also in the skills that AI will not be capable of automating. These include the very “human” capabilities of creativity, empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence.

Despite changes to legal technology, Australian law schools remain wedded to an old-fashioned teaching model. The core law subjects taught in all Australian law schools, known as the Priestley Eleven, have not been updated in almost 30 years.

No move is underway to change these subjects in response to changes in the legal sector. There is little discussion about implementing new, compulsory legal technology subjects, creative subjects, critical thinking, or subjects that build a law student’s “emotional intelligence quotient” (EQ).

Read more: Don't fear robo-justice. Algorithms could help more people access legal advice

This is despite the fact that prominent critics – including former Chief Justice Robert French – have suggested that the Priestley Eleven are a “dead hand” on curriculum reform and need urgent revision.

A fresh curriculum

Australian law schools seem to be ignoring the risks of failing to innovate. The case method, a standard system of teaching at all Australian law schools, was invented in the 1800s at Harvard Law School. It teaches students to apply the law to a set of facts. This is precisely the skill that is currently at risk of automation.

More than this, the case method excludes student discussion on morality, emotion and empathy – the exact “human” skills that are now required.

A recent LexisNexis report argues that the time has come to move away from old lawyering skills and towards new skills education.

For this to happen, Australian law schools will need to modify or abandon the Priestley Eleven and the case method of instruction.

It is important to acknowledge here that some law schools are proactively responding to new technology. A handful have gone as far as to create new elective courses or “majors” in either coding or legal technology. However, as long as these courses are only electives, they remain sidelined in a curriculum dominated by the classical and old-fashioned teaching of law as a “black letter” subject.

Demand for new skills from law firms

Australian law firms are beginning to demand that law schools teach students new skills for the new AI economy. Gilbert and Tobin, one of the largest law firms in Australia, wants law students to be taught about legal technology and to gain more skills in creativity and coding.

Read more: Connecting 'diblings': how the law is failing to keep up with modern families

Some prominent academics are calling for a return to a more critical legal education that empowers students not only to learn the law, but also to critique its flaws.

A new law school, built on the principles of technology and the liberal arts, might teach students to critique the law that they are currently learning, learn to code, engage in law reform, and develop the essential skills of creativity, empathy and compassion.

This innovative, modern approach to legal education could empower students to face the changing legal industry with confidence and certainty, giving them hope in an otherwise uncertain and grim job market.

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