Education has emerged as one of the key impact areas of the pandemic. Should schools remain open? What happens to exams in 2021? Is online learning fair to all because of the digital divide (where some have access to the latest equipment, while others share equipment or have a poor internet connection)? What has been the impact on mental health of the isolation and upending of norms for students?
Legal education is no different. I suggested a couple of months ago that there should be an Alliance for the Future of the Profession, bringing together leaders of various sizes of law firms, representatives from the universities, regulators and the professional bodies, to work out a plan to save the current generation of would-be or junior lawyers who are suffering unduly from pandemic restrictions.
Now I see that the American Bar Association (ABA) has taken a further step to ease the passage of would-be lawyers to the profession. The Council of its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar serves as an independent arm of the ABA, and accredits 200 U.S. law schools. Its recent announcement might serve as a useful precedent, despite the different structure of US legal education.
The Council said that, although it will continue to enforce its standards, it will also consider individual law school circumstances that arise from Covid-19 if the school’s bar pass rate falls below the required level over two years. The school must submit relevant information to demonstrate the pandemic’s impact on its graduates being able to sit for the bar exam or for the school to meet compliance with the standard. Otherwise loss of accreditation could follow.
Around the same time, the International Bar Association published a report called ‘Developing a Blueprint for Global Legal Education’, undertaken with the Law Schools Global League (LSGL) in coordination with IE Law School. The report aims to help legal education institutions navigate ongoing changes, offering models that respond to current needs. Although the report was begun pre-pandemic, it was published after, and takes its impact into account.
If the pandemic is removed from the equation, the report’s most surprising conclusion is that globalisation is the number one trend in legal education. It seems that, among all other changes, legal institutions around the world are working towards becoming more international. Included in the factors driving this are: comparative methodology, cultural globalisation, dual legal training, and the fact that US and UK legal education systems are seen as a template.
Second on the list – not surprisingly - comes technology, but well behind globalisation. Technology ticks 9% of all measures demonstrating interest, as against 37% for globalisation – and technology shares second place with skills. Technology has all the usual factors cited for its importance.
But when the pandemic is taken into account, the position changes and technology comes out on top.
The report says that online teaching is the biggest challenge faced by law schools during lockdown. Other problems cited are: the digital divide again, between those with better and worse IT access, including for students with disabilities; and the chaotic transition to the virtual world. The transition has definitely been chaotic. But in defence of those responsible for the adaptation, there was no warning, and – from what I can observe in my own world - things appear to be beginning slowly to settle. More relaxed rules regarding online exams also appears on the list, with some echoes of the issue dealt with above by the ABA.
Another of the new tech challenges is the inclusion of legal tech itself as a course within legal studies. This has been on the curriculum at some US law schools for some time now, but the pandemic has doubtless made it more urgent for others. Suggestions for the content of such courses include preparing students for litigation online in the future, and teaching programming skills.
Associated with that is the suggestion that, post-pandemic, legal skills should include project management, process, data analysis, design, basic notions of business, maths, scheduling, prediction, risk management, and leadership. The push for these skills is a positive outcome of the new forced circumstances.
When gigantic changes come along, it is difficult to know what will be their long-term effect. To take two very different developments in other fields, I remember at the time that no-one was quite sure what the impact of either the Beatles or the internet would be. It has taken decades for us to understand their consequences. So it is with the pandemic, which is only 9 months’ old. We don’t even know when it will end, and certainly not how many of its changes will last.
I predict that the impact on legal education will be lasting, in line with some of the leads above.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member nor on behalf of the Law Society