My Law Student is Smarter Than Your Bot

What are the outer limits to digitization and automation in the practice of law?

This week I participated in a small writing workshop at Georgetown Law. A junior colleague presented a fascinating work-in-progress about robots (a/k/a “bots”) doing legal work. The writer enlightened us to two of the products and services, one called “Do Not Pay” and one called “ROSS.”

Do Not Pay calls itself “The World’s First Robot Lawyer” on its website.  Over at ROSS, they invite us to: “Do more than humanly possible: Supercharge lawyers with artificial intelligence.”   My reaction was a mix of astonishment at the idea of non-human entities practicing law, and keen curiosity to learn more. After all, I just this week green-lighted the use of a free online product called Divorce Tracker suggested by my students. One of them discovered it at his summer job last year with a Pennsylvania legal services office.  The students will be utilizing it during an upcoming divorce workshop they are offering for low-income clients.

Increasing access to justice for disadvantaged parties with technology is not news, and it’s not troubling.  I don’t pretend to be positioned to critically analyze a company like Do Not Pay by comparison, either.  It’s apples to oranges, I think.  Do Not Pay, as far as I can tell, doesn’t seem to operate in the access to justice arena anyway. Their product seems to be about helping users avoid paying parking tickets by walking them through a series of legal and logistical options. The fact that it was developed by a young Canadian college student without a law license at first gave me pause, but the more I ponder it the less it concerns me. The “World’s First Robot Lawyer” language on their website strikes me as hyperbolic and therefore marginal in its potential to mislead.  Also, these are parking ticket matters, not ones affecting, say, parental rights.  Family law matters like that are increasingly being addressed in online and digitized products and services being developed for state legal services providers, courts, and similar organizations.  The access to justice space is ripe for innovation, and in some instances law schools are partnering with businesses to develop and spread the technology to actually help those in need.  A2J Author, for example, was developed in partnership with Chicago-Kent College of Law.

And services like ROSS? I don’t know.  I’m glad my colleague is researching it. They’re openly selling a product to lawyers to increase efficiency, and reduce costs.The testimonials on their website from lawyer-users bear this out. At the same time, ROSS says its services are for free to “major law schools, bar associations, and non-profits” and touts the company’s “commitment to democratizing access to justice for all”.  What does that look like? I don’t know that either. But I’m intrigued.  As my colleague pointed out at the workshop, ROSS seems unique in its capability to market digitized legal analysis, not just legal procedure. It uses Artificial Intelligence–what, I think, the Do Not Pay website also uses but calls a Robot and what sometimes appears as “Bot” in our staggeringly fluid modern vernacular.  What are Bots missing, though? At the workshop this week, we shared concerns about the empathy and critical analysis that human lawyers perform for clients.  That’s what I mean by my law student being smarter than a Bot. I incorporate lessons on compassion fatigue and secondary trauma in all my law school courses.  If I were teaching Bots, I could probably skip those lessons. But empathy is an integral part of the practice of law. Artificial Intelligence I’m good with.  Artificial Empathy? No, thank you.

Legislation & Regulation and the Bar Exam

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the performance test (PT), a portion of the bar exam in 42 states and D.C. (Forty states use the Multistate Performance Test (MPT); examiners in Pennsylvania and California write and administer their own PT.) For states using the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), the MPT counts for 20 percent of the overall exam score.

I wrote about the performance test previously here. I extolled its virtue as the only part of the exam that exclusively tests lawyering skills, requiring zero memorization of legal rules; and I bemoaned its status as the ugly step-child of the bar exam that gets next to no attention in conversations about exam reform.

Over time, bar examiners have concluded that certain substantive subjects have grown or lessened in importance to law practice such that they have added subjects to the MBE (e.g., Federal Civil Procedure) or dropped subjects from essays (e.g., Secured Transactions, in some jurisdictions). Why not the same with skills on the PT? Is it not fair to say, for example, that a greater percentage of beginning lawyers today work in fields dominated by regulations than did in 1993 when the MPT was born? Yet the vast majority of PTs to this day test the ability to reason from cases, not from statutes or regulations without the aid of cases.

The anti-regulation bent of the current administration notwithstanding, we live in a heavily regulatory state. Lawyers in numerous specialty areas, including health care law and environmental law; lawyers working for government agencies; or lawyers serving as in-house compliance officers—among the most important skill sets for all of them are reading, interpreting and applying statutes and regulations. (Compliance, by the way, has been a growing field, and positions in compliance are J.D. preferred jobs increasingly being filled by newly licensed lawyers.) Many law schools have responded to this reality by adding a 1L course on legislation and regulation to provide law students the needed foundation for practicing law in our heavily regulatory state. (A running list, accessible from here, indicates that about 30 law schools are offering a course of this nature in the first year.)

In reviewing summaries of the last 28 MPT items (covering the last 14 exams back to February 2010), I found only one among the 28 that provided only statutes and regulations and no cases as part of its law library. Typically, PTs presenting issues of statutory application have both statutes and cases in the library, and the cases provide the statutory interpretation needed to answer the issue posed. That’s still common law reasoning—a very important skill, to be sure, but not very helpful for a lawyer when the only applicable law is a statute or a regulation.

All of the above helps to explain how pleasantly surprised I was to see a purely statutory issue on the February 2017 performance test on the Pennsylvania Bar Exam. The assigned task was to write a memorandum analyzing and supporting the client’s position on three legal issues raised by opposing counsel in a motor vehicle accident. One of the issues was whether a driver had violated the state’s law banning texting while driving. The text of the law appeared in the materials, and applicants had to dissect its language and apply it to the facts—all without the aid of cases in the materials, each of which was relevant only to other issues. This is basic stuff, but exactly the kind of basic stuff that beginning lawyers must be able to do well.

Preaching to the Choir? A Request for Inclusion in the Call for Equity among Law School Faculty

On Tuesday I received an event email from a bar association I was once a member of. The event was to serve as a forum for the deans from six local law schools. The next day, on International Women’s Day, I received an email from SALT seeking support for the ‘Full Citizenship Project for Law Faculty’ launched by the Legal Writing Institute (LWI) and the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD). Both emails caught my attention, for similar reasons. The first pictured a set of six male law school deans, and I was keenly aware, on many different levels, of the differences between me and them. The second email was a call to action directed at a group that I am a part of. As a woman, I didn’t see myself reflected in the bar association dean email. As a visiting clinical professor, I also do not belong to the predominantly male group of tenure track faculty.

Although the Full Citizenship Statement that is seeking signatures does not exclusively affect women, it could bridge one of the many disparities that exist among primarily tenured doctrinal faculty and legal writing, clinical and academic support faculty. The statement states that full citizenship is “…necessary to ensure that law students and the legal profession benefit from the myriad perspectives and expertise that all faculty bring to the mission of legal education.

How law students benefit from different perspectives may seem obvious to some and debatable to others. When a law school does distinguish between faculty, it communicates to students who, and what, the law school values as important. Titles, voting rights and salaries (which public institutions often make public information) make the hierarchy even more obvious. First and foremost, as a full time teacher at a law school, our mission is (or should be) to teach students how to be the people and lawyers we want to see out in the world post-graduation. Whether that mission is accomplished through legal writing, clinical experience or doctrinal classes, shouldn’t make a difference.

But I wonder if, because I am a woman and in a visiting position, does my opinion count as much as those the petition is seeking parity with? How much should we be actively seeking out those already in tenured positions versus preaching to, and seeking support from, the choir?

My own imposter syndrome voice sneaking up on me tells me I have no place writing this blog, and I try to silence her. I have been teaching for less than two years and I admittedly know less than many of my colleagues about this issue. But I believe my voice, as well as others who are new to the field, and those who have been in the trenches and already received tenure, are all important voices in the conversation.

I hope that conversations surrounding this Full Citizenship Statement take place in law school faculty meetings around the country where the very people this petition impacts, may very well be absent. I wonder if the conversations that may take place will reflect an instinctual resistance to adopt a structure that seemingly threatens to decrease one’s own power, pay or voice, or if there will be support. Just as it is vital for men and boys to be an active part of the conversation on gender and gender disparities, so too must those who are already in the privileged position of tenured faculty be an active part of the conversation around this petition.

We may struggle as teachers in how to address privilege in the clinical classroom. It is not an easy topic, notably when we have to take it out of the context of the classroom and apply it to our own lives and careers. It forces us to accept that we may have benefited from the advantage that race, sexual orientation, academic pedigree or economic upbringing may have offered. But privilege also offers the advantage of a platform and a voice, and in a movement like this, that is important. The call for equity can lessen the gap by knocking down boundaries created by arbitrary distinctions between those that meet the current qualifications for tenure track positions and those that do not. Talking about hierarchy, politics, power and pay can be incredibly uncomfortable when dissecting it within the institutional hierarchies we exist in. But now, it is necessary.

Igniting Faculty and Curriculum Innovation

Our friends over at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers just posted  links to Ignite videos that were filmed during  their 5th Annual Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyer’s Conference last October.   Ignite is a wonderful conference or teaching tool which forces presenters to synthesize their message into 5 to 6 minutes presentations with quickly moving accompanying PowerPoint slides.

This year’s handy and informative videos span a wide spectrum of ideas including a really helpful curriculum design and faculty support resource from Thurgood Marshall School of Law’s Professor Charlene James, a report on a three year survey being  conducted at University of Denver about student’s experience with “experiential learning”,  and Mitchell-Hamline’s experience with Integrating Professional and Career Development across the curriculum.  Videos also addressed learning outcomes, assessment tools and assessment experiences. All of the videos are worth a quick review.

The Ignite series starts with a presentation from yours truly, and two of my colleagues from Albany Law, during which we describe  how we incorporated information gleaned from community and employer focus groups to assess our opportunities for student learning and enhance our curriculum.   In the accompanying PowerPoint, Professor Nancy Maurer provides sample handouts and other useful ideas.  Professor Christine Chung examines the business, tax, financial, and transactional curriculum to exemplify how to use focus groups, faculty guidance and national data to enhance  curriculum.

The last Ignite presentation by Suffolk’s Vice Provost Professor Jeff Pokorak raises important questions regarding professional identity and misunderstandings between the legal professoriate and legal profession which will appeal to anyone who ever struggled in this space or has ever enjoyed a Star Trek episode!



ABA Commission on Future of the Profession & ABA Vote on Bar Passage Proposal

During the midyear meeting of the the American Bar Association  (ABA) held last week in Miami, several issues were considered which relate to legal education.  I will discuss two of those issues here: the creation of the Commission on the Future of Legal Education and the proposed changes to accreditation standards concerning bar passage requirements.

First, the ABA Board of Governors created a new ABA “Commission on the Future of Legal Education”, which will become operational in August.  Championed by incoming president, Hilarie Bass, the creation of the Commission was just one component of a proposal  to restructure the power and responsibilities afforded the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar . President-elect Bass believes that the ABA’s “lack of response to the constant barrage of grievances about our system of legal education is undoubtedly impacting membership and also preventing top students from entering law school.” Bass cites “low bar passage rates, excessive law student debt, the depressed job market for new lawyers and the lack of value that employers place on the capabilities of recent law graduates” as reasons to restructure.  Although the Board of Governors voted to create the commission, it did not “sign off on the extensive slate of responsibilities that the commission would have under the original proposal from ABA president-elect Hilarie Bass.

Earlier this month, Karen Sloan’s February 1st article in the National Law Journal helpfully outlined the arguments for and against the Bass proposal, including suggestions that the proposal was made too precipitously.  Sloan also notes those who  applauded the need for reform quoting SALT co-president Denise Roy about the need for reform in legal education and bar licensing,

Ms. Bass’s proposal promises to do just that, and SALT supports the effort. Of course, its success will depend on naming a commission whose members are high­quality creative experts who will consider a wide range of views from both within and outside the academy.”

Clinical Legal Education Association co-presidents Beth Schwartz and C.Benjie Louis agreed that there are challenges with the current structure and are also quoted in the February 1st article:

The Council has often ignored the comments of members of the law school community when considering changes in ABA accreditation standards.  The Council also has failed to provide leadership or a forum for discussing the challenges and opportunities of legal education and bar licensing.”

This past Tuesday, those of us who are members of the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, received an e-mail from the Chair Greg Murphy reporting  that

“the ABA Board of Governors passed a motion last week authorizing the creation of a new ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Education, which will become operational in August. The Board did not address President-Elect Bass’s proposal to change the name of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the functions of the Section, or the funding of the Commission on the Future of Legal Education. I have invited President-Elect Bass to come to the Council’s March meeting where these matters will be the subject of collaborative discussion. The members of the Section and other stakeholders will be kept advised, as appropriate.”

So, stay tuned!

The second issue important to legal education concerned the ABA House of Delegates vote on proposed revisions to Standard 316 concerning bar passage.  The revisions would eliminate the old more nuanced standard and replace it with the following ultimatum:

Standard 316. BAR PASSAGE At least 75 percent of a law school’s graduates in a calendar year who sat for a bar examination must have passed a bar examination administered within two years of their date of graduation.

Proponents and opponents of this proposed revision make good points. For example, consider Law School Transparency’s view that the present toothless standard (no school has ever been found to be out of compliance with 316) has permitted many schools to exploit students by enrolling some with LSAT numbers that predict failure. Equally persuasive are the views of those, such as the National Black Law Students Association  and SALT who oppose the revision on grounds that the proposal failed to address racial inequities in the law school admissions process and legal education.  In the ABA law Journal, Stephanie Francis Ward described data submitted for the initial hearing in March of 2016 by William Patton, a professor emeritus at Whittier Law School, which found that 33.4 percent of black students in California and 29.8 percent of the state’s Hispanic law students attend the five ABA-accredited law schools that would be most at risk of violating the proposed revision.

Meanwhile, CLEA called its nationwide membership  to action to oppose the proposed revision by  contacting their individual state delegates to the House.  CLEA’s formal statement in opposition acknowledges the ABA’s responsibility to discourage predatory practices but also emphasizes the need for more understanding of the diversity consequences.  The CLEA and SALT  opposition also makes crucial points about the danger of our using the current bar exam as the gatekeeper for the profession. As the SALT comment notes, “we continue to have fundamental concerns about the limitations of the current system of licensing lawyers through the bar exam and the unfortunate ways in which Standard 316 affects law school admissions and pedagogy.

In my opinion, the bright-line test which the proposed revision creates would upend the balance of legal education in a harmful way. First, there should be a deeper exploration of the consequences to the diversity of law schools and  our profession before revising. This should be done in conjunction with those committed  to remedying the embarrassing  fact that our profession is so much whiter than other professions.   Our profession is almost 90% white and has decreased in diversity between  2000 and 2010 according to ABA lawyer demographics.  Second, this proposal is likely to be  harmful to the interest of current and prospective students in proper preparation for  current practice in the 21st century economy.  One glimpse at the detailed survey work of the Foundations for Practice project demonstrates the plethora of skills which legal employers in this economy desire and which the bar exam does not even begin to test.  Third, imposition of this standard now will likely harm future students and the development of innovation in law schools for those students.  This is a time when all of us entrusted with the professional development of lawyers need to be thinking strategically about what lawyers will be doing 10 to 40  years from now. We have to be concerned about what a  future in a reduced labor economy – with artificial intelligence infused throughout it – means for the role of lawyers and the development of law students.  Finally,  making a bright-line test for only one factor – bar passage rate – and not for employment rate, skills and clinical opportunities, or other significant indicators, will reify a bar licensing process that is deeply flawed.  

In short, I agree with the ABA House vote to send the proposal back to the Council of the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar for more pondering.  There must be a better way to discourage predatory behaviors by certain law schools without potentially destroying much that is good and promising in legal education.

AALS Statement on Executive Order Restricting Entry to U.S.A.

Statement by the AALS Executive Committee on the Executive Order

Restricting U.S. Entry for Certain Foreign Nationals

Washington, D.C. (January 30, 2017) – The following is a statement by the members of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Executive Committee:

Law schools and universities in the United States are greatly enriched by the presence of international students and scholars from around the world. The Association of American Law Schools is thus deeply concerned by the Executive Order issued by President Donald Trump that restricts the ability of students and scholars who lawfully have the right to come to the United States from being able to enter or remain in our country. The Executive Order is inconsistent with our nation’s tradition of welcoming talented individuals from all nations to study and teach in the United States.

We commend the lawyers, including a number of law faculty, law students, and courts, who responded immediately to represent these individuals and to uphold the rule of law. The AALS urges the Trump administration to withdraw this Executive Order as inconsistent with freedom of inquiry and with basic principles of law.


I applaud the AALS for issuing this statement today. As a professional association, its first obligation is to the students and scholars affected by  the order as well as to the effect on learning in law schools and universities generally.


What is a “Fact”? A “Story”?

In Washington D.C., on the GWU campus, there is a statue of a hippopotamus. A nearby sign explains that the statue was placed there because hippos once could be found in the Potomac. George and Martha Washington liked watching them from their Mount Vernon porch. They were also a favorite of children visiting the estate. George Washington even had a false set of teeth made of hippopotamus ivory.

As you have likely guessed, that sign offers readers what we might call mendacities, misrepresentations, falsehoods, alternative facts, untruths, lies, or bulls**t. To end any suspense, there really is a statue, the sign really does say most of these things, and George Washington really did have a false set of teeth made of hippo ivory. But the Washingtons never saw hippos frolicking in the Potomac and no one would have children anywhere near the Potomac if there were. To see hippopotami in the Potomac, someone would have had travel to Sub-Saharan Africa, capture a pod of hippos (they are social creatures) without being attacked (they are very dangerous, killing 3,000 people each year), carry them across land to seafaring boats, make the trek across the Atlantic, and then to the Potomac—all while keeping the animals’ skin moist at all times. The hippos might freeze in the winter if not recaptured and quartered somewhere warmer. Hippos are also very large, weighing in at 1.5 tons or more.

Nevertheless, these facts and falsehoods hang together as a story. When did you begin to question that story? When you began to question, did you then question the entirety of the facts or were you willing to believe any of the information as fact? As lawyers, you know that stories are composed of facts, but if asked for a definition of a fact or of a story, can you provide one?

More importantly, we want the next generation of lawyers to fully appreciate the answers to those questions. With the decentralization of information, I find that I need to be more deliberate in my approach to teaching different categories of facts: actual facts such as the sun rising in the east on our planet; verifiable facts, such as the natural habitat of hippopotami; and debatable facts, such as whether this sentence should have used “whether or not” instead of “whether.” I also spend a significant amount of time distinguishing facts from characterizations, which are essentially the opinions or judgments of the writer. Someone’s “lovely summer-preview week in April” is someone else’s “torturous week in April” if that second someone suffers from summer Seasonal Affect Disorder. And, now, sadly, I am spending more time teaching the difference between facts and misrepresentations or falsehoods, such as a statement that this blog post focuses primarily on hippopotami (a misrepresentation) or on cat memes (a falsehood).

For several years, I have also spent several class hours on the importance of story structure as the delivery vehicle for facts and story strategy as a driving force in persuasion. A story involves characters, a setting, and hurdles or challenges that a particular character or characters must overcome to reach a desired goal. Implicit in that definition is the passage of time, i.e. a beginning, middle, and end. It is easy to see how legal matters exist as stories. The nub is in the teaching of the re-telling, from the client’s perspective, using description and detail—that is, facts—rather than characterizations.

Facts must be presented as a narrative rather than as a list if the author wants the audience to interact with those facts and remember them. Facts by themselves don’t persuade. Stories persuade. That’s not my opinion, but has been demonstrated by science across a variety of fields. We think, act, make decisions in story. As those of us studying and writing on applied legal storytelling know, former Oceanographer at the Department of Energy, Kendall Haven has published books to help professionals digest the vast amount of science out there. For yourself, take the simple but germinal test in the study conducted in 1944 by Drs, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Look at the video and see if you can answer a few of the questions. If you can, you have demonstrated that you think in story. To demonstrate this to my students, before showing the video I divide the class in thirds and assign each group a client to represent. After showing the video twice I ask each group to tell a story from that client’s perspective.

Contrary to what we may call our lawyer’s sense of justice when the verifiable facts disprove falsehoods, citing just the facts by themselves may actually backfire–here’s a great Harvard Business Review article with links to the original studies that will help explain why. In law, there are several studies of jurors that demonstrate the power of story, but only a handful of studies testing legal audiences. In a 2010 article Ken Chestek wrote about a study that used carefully constructed briefs to study the preferences of judges, court staff attorneys, newer attorneys serving as law clerks, appellate attorneys, and law professors. From the data, he concluded that stories are more persuasive to decision makers than syllogistic reasoning by itself. Attorneys and judges with more than five years of practice overwhelmingly chose a storied version of an advocacy document over a straight-up law/application version. Only the attorneys newly out of law school deviated from this pattern—begging the question, are we doing something in law school that skews this number so much from what judges and seasoned attorneys believe to be effective lawyering?

Assuming you are on board that our students should graduate knowing what facts are and knowing that representing clients means being able to appreciate and tell their clients’ stories, the last question to answer is the curricular locale for teaching these things. Historically, the clinic and externship programs at law schools have been celebrated for focusing students on facts and narrative in a capstone experience. I am a true believer that those programs will continue to be the locales in which students will most strongly make the connections between legal and narrative reasoning. But we do students a stronger service if they enter the capstone experiences with a strong foundation. The casebook authors can include more story so that teaching professors can reinforce the ideas of facts and narrative. The skills professors of the trial advocacy and practicum courses include some training, but the first and heavy lift most appropriately belongs in the required first-year legal research, analysis & communication course series. Gone are the days when we can teach those courses by indulging in the pedagogy of a legal document’s traditional text-based sections or on a singular paradigm for organizing legal reasoning. In 2017 we must focus on making students client-ready. Written and verbal communication in law occurs in a variety of mediums, to a variety of audiences, and in a variety of different rhetorical situations. The connecting universals across law and legal communications will always include law, facts, and story.

*Thank you to Courtney Knight, Class of 2017, Rutgers Law School, for the story idea.
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