How Do Law Professors Remain Ignorant About the Intersection of Law and Technology?

At The Legal Whiteboard, Bill Henderson asks “How Do Law Professors Learn About the Intersection of Law and Technology?” He raises two important points. The first is about the persistent ignorance among law professors of current technologies and how they are changing law practice. The second, going even deeper, is about the even more persistent distance between law schools and current developments in practice: a distance that has  structural elements in the institution of legal education, and is perhaps too easily dismissed as personal disdain on the part of law professors.

Bill notes in particular “developments in the world of electronic discovery — the very thing that has added enormous cost and complexity to civil litigation in this country, impacting access to justice, and producing a restructuring of how corporations buy and manage a significant portion of their legal services. If there is a burgeoning legal technology revolution, the frontline is the world of e-discovery.”

Among the classes I teach are e-discovery and information privacy. I also have long experience (as a former law librarian) and research interest in Internet communications technologies (ICT) and social media. Like Bill, I also gain a great deal from attending practitioner-oriented conferences like the Sedona Conference Institutes, and I often find that I’m the only law professor at some of these conferences. 

There are a lot of reasons why more law professors don’t attend meetings like the Sedona Conference or NYC TechShow. Many of these meetings take place on weekdays during the school year when law professors are teaching. Although they do manage to find the time to attend scholarly conferences and workshops, most of the big scholarly conferences take place in the summer (like LSA) or winter break (like AALS). In addition, many law professors would have to pay their own way. Some law schools, particularly with tightened travel budgets in the current climate, provide travel support only for faculty who are presenting papers. In other words, there is little institutional support for faculty actually learning new things, particularly about trends in law practice. I’ve paid a good portion of my own expenses for conferences I’ve attended. But expense is only a part of it. To be blunt, an awful lot of professors don’t like putting themselves in situations where they’re not the smartest person in the room. Attending a conference full of lawyer experts on e-discovery or other technology matters puts law professors way outside of their comfort zone. 

This discomfort with technology often manifests as disdain. I have always been puzzled by how law faculty seem to take an active pride in being ignorant of technology. Some  dismissive comments are direct: social media is a fad; Twitter and Facebook do nothing but promote narcissism; students these days have no interest in privacy. Others are indirect, as when law faculty express their thanks to their faculty assistants or IT staff for doing their Powerpoints for them (Powerpoint is not that hard, people).

On the other hand, I don’t want to place all the blame on the academic side. Some of the practitioner conferences I’ve attended are, frankly, pretty thin on intellectual content. Law faculty don’t have any more interest in tedious CLE programs than do most practitioners. And there is a lot of good empirical work being done (by Bill Henderson and others), while some of what is presented at some practitioner and bar-oriented conferences is technopunditry little different from what you read in the popular press.

We need cultural change in the law schools, and that has to be supported, if not led, by deans. As James Grimmelman comments at PrawfsBlawg:

One thing deans (and colleagues) can do is shape the norms among faculty. It is not okay to express disinterest in or disdain towards computer technology. Those who do should be challenged, gently but firmly. Instructional and legal practice technology are too important and pervasive to be someone else’s problem.

It’s fine to express ignorance, as long as it’s coupled with a reasonable interest in learning more. As Bill points out, we all have much to learn. Those who do should be helped and encouraged.

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About James G. Milles

Professor of Law, SUNY Buffalo Law School

Posted on December 30, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Jim,

    I enjoyed your post, and the snarkiness of my comment is not intended for you. But it is hard for me to cry for the law profs who don’t attend law/tech conferences because they would have to pay their own way. As an independent practitioner, no one pays for my CLE or that of my colleagues. We pay that out of our own pocket, along with office expenses, legal malpractice insurance and all the other benefits covered by law prof salaries. What’s more, for many industry conferences, academics receive a deep discount that solo lawyers do not – even though many law profs earn more than many solos. Finally, did you know that many conferences will comp admission if you present a paper or agree to blog or tweet the conference? If you can get in for free, you can often find cheap flights or bunk with others to save costs.

  2. Carolyn, I agree with you about law profs paying their own way to conferences. I frequently pay my own way, or at least a large chunk of it. But in a law school culture where the emphasis is on scholarly productivity (read: the law school will pay if and only if you’re presenting a paper, not learning), and where the myth still persists that law profs are making a sacrifice by teaching and not earning huge salaries on Wall Street, there is a sense of entitlement that academics have a hard time getting past.

    Another difference between the practitioner and academic cultures: I did not know about comping conference fees for blogging or tweeting the conference. The culture in law schools is often just the opposite: I’ve read blog discussions treating the idea of blogging or tweeting an academic presentation, where academics are often presenting draft papers, as unethical and chilling to proper academic interchange.

  3. Jim, your point about the cultural divide between practitioners and legal academia is a core problem. Not only do I see the divide as the Grand Canyon, but I see the professoriate refusing to make any effort to yell across it. Instead, they prefer to whisper among themselves, so that the only sounds they hear are their own. That way, the are never forced to listen to the vulgar tones of lawyers saying mean things about them.

    Bill and I have discussed his goals a few times, and we share many of the same objectives. Yet, I think Bill is frustrated with me because I never seem to show sufficient respect for scholarly culture. We do not share the same sacred cows, and even though he pushes the envelope from the scholar side, it’s never enough to satisfy the practicing lawyer perspective. Much as I respect Bill’s efforts, they remain decidedly academic.

    I wish you have commented on my post about this, as this is the sort of discussion that lawyers and academics need to have. Lawprofs won’t solve anything by talking among themselves, and practicing lawyers will never be capable of engaging with the professoriate in the sweet dulcet tones they demand of us. And so the Grand Canyon continues to separate us.

  4. I agree in general that there is a Grand Canyon, but not every school is like that. A lot has to do with how much practice experience faculty have when they’re hired. I think law profs need to be both lawyer academicians and academic lawyers, and it’s hard to be both if you haven’t been a lawyer other than a law clerk or biglaw associate for a year or two. The problem goes well beyond the intersection of law and technology. It is a problem at the intersection of law and practice. Until more faculty have real practice experience, I don’t see that happening much. Yet we’ve seen at our school that people with significant practice experience can be fine scholars and great all-around law professors. There is no inconsistency, only increased value to students and the profession.

  1. Pingback: Blogging from Legaltech NY 2013 | Buffalo Wings and Toasted Ravioli

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