Legal Education in 21st Century --- AI and beyond

Zhiqiong June Wang - School of Law, Western Sydney University

-- Development in technology often leads to changes in law and impacts on legal practice and legal education. Although there is no reason to think that the changes brought about to the legal profession by new technologies, such as AI and big data, are as frightening as have been claimed by some; it has been suggested, and more or less generally agreed, that changes to the legal industry in the next two decades would be more than those in the last two centuries.

If the impact of technology on law and legal practice is pervasive and disruptive, and the disruptive technologies are in the process of replacing the traditional lawyers’ tasks, then we need to identify new skills and characteristics which are important to future legal practice. In a recent article, Between Constancy and Change: Legal Practice and Legal Education in the Age of Technology, I examine the impact of AI and other technologies on legal practice, responses from the legal profession, and how legal education, especially its curricula, might respond to changes and challenges. Fundamentally, the question we pose is, if this wave of changes to the legal profession is inevitable, how could/should legal education adapt to changes so as to prepare our graduates for their future practice?

Reform of the already overcrowded law curriculum is not simple or easy. In the absence of any consensus, individual law schools in Australia and other countries have introduced new electives, such as Law Apps, Cyber Law, Computer Coding for Lawyers, Cloud Computing, and law-based hackathons, among others. However, teaching some electives on technology matters to small groups of law students may not be the answer to fostering a new generation of lawyers. We need to differentiate the skill sets traditionally required by the legal profession and understand what may be automatable in the future. We should then focus on cultivating capacities which are uniquely human and unlikely possessed by machines. Thus we may ensure our students will continue to be critical and independent thinkers as well as skilful practitioners.

We must ensure that academics and students understand that the use of AI in law, such as sentencing and “predicting policy”, is not free from problems. As The Australian Human Rights Commission has pointed out, AI can entrench or even exacerbate gender bias and stereotyping. For example, black people are more likely to be treated as presenting a medium to high risk of re-offending (and thus be more likely to attract a custodial sentence or a longer sentence) because of the bias in the past data. Although we cannot blame technology for that, understanding these risks and limitations and addressing such issues to prevent inequality are critical. After all, legal practice is about achieving justice and fairness through not only interpreting and applying the law, but also by advancing the law with empathy, compassion, and a strong sense of justice and ethics. We should recognise that AI systems and human beings have different strengths and weaknesses. Only a prudent combination of a well-designed and thoroughly vetted AI system to assist human decision-making may reduce bias in practice. Furthermore, we should recognise that the study and research by academics on disruptions and other impacts of technologies are to assist the formulation of legal responses to new technologies, such as stem cell and blockchain, just to name two.

In the past, the common law system has proven that it is capable of preserving the ‘skeleton of principles’ while adapting to contemporary issues and demands. Like the way we adapted to globalisation, legal education and legal practice will meet new technological challenges, and a system combining the strength of human beings and AI will lead to not only efficiency, but also a new movement toward justice and equality.

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