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.