Technology in Legal Education and Practice: Then, Now, and Next

By: Victoria Lynne Harrison

During the recent pandemic, the world has had to rethink how it does…everything. Our profession is no exception. The pandemic forced rapid change, particularly adoption of technology and letting go of traditionalism in the field, but seeds were sown long ago.

In 2020, the Association of American Law Schools recognized that technology would be a critical component to the 21st century.[1] Anna Williams Shavers wrote in 2001 of the discretion law schools have regarding coursework and how they were beggining to include tech based electives such as intellectual property.[2] Data showed that such courses were being selected more often than more traditional electives.[3] Around 1981 it was said of legal education that “innovation…comes hard, is limited in scope and permission, and generally dies young.”[4] Sadly, this sentiment was evidenced by the fact that few professors bothered to incorporate educational technologies that were available.[5]

Despite the limited interest broadly, proponents recognized the potential value: increased and easier access to information, better accommodation for students with disabilities and different learning styles, collaboration with students beyond the confines of the classroom or campus.[6] The American Bar Association, however, took an interest in a study done on distance learning and created a specific set of guidelines that ultimately showed their distaste for it due to a concern about limited personal interaction.[7] While not explicitly prohibiting distance learning, they did lump it in with correspondence study which could not be used to earn credits.[8] Even so, it’s clear that even 20 years ago, it was known that technology had a place in legal education.

Contrary to earlier technological innovations, the internet was a game changer.[9] The indifference towards technology and innovation was beginning to change.[10] While schools began offering online courses in the early 21st century, around 2015, some schools were researching the possibility of taking things to the next level and offering full online JD programs.[11] One writer offered a this hope, “ideally, over the next decade a growing number of administrators will encourage and reward innovation in legal education and a growing number of law professors will engage deeply with technologies that enable innovation.”[12] Four years later, in 2019, Syracuse University launched their hybrid JD program—and ABA approved program combining both online an in person requirements.

Over time, changes in legal education and practice would be driven by changes in the students.[13] Students would be arriving at law school having been raised on technology.[14] Schools and the field will need to adapt as technology is more deeply embedded into the K12 and undergraduate spaces, as future law students will ask more of their institutions and the profession.[15] 

In practice, lawyers are often resistant to change and technology.[16] It could be due to risk aversion, commitment to a status quo, worry about fewer billable hours, or fear of tech taking over jobs.[17] Reasonable or not, it has been easy for the legal industry to hold fast to these concerns and stay still. Newton’s first law says, in part, that an object at rest will remain at rest until acted upon by a force.[18] In 2020, the legal world was met with a force by the name of COVID-19. 

Thankfully, the legal world rose to the occasion and embraced change. From attorneys to judges, old and young, professionals took to video for depositions and hearings, for example.[19] Attorneys and other legal professionals have seen benefits during this time that many hope will remain: less travel time and expense, greater efficiency and flexibility.[20] It has been easier to provide pro bono services without fiscal and geographical limitations. Firms that often connected via conference call, got on video as well and appreciated seeing one another![21] Not to mention that law schools HAD to transition to virtual instruction and students still took classes and got their JDs. Challengine? Yes. But clearly possible.

It is true that with everything being virtual the level of connection that comes with sharing a physical space is lost, but people are finding that the video alternatives are a close second.[22] By and large forced growth and adoption of technology in the field has been a good thing and is opening eyes to the possibilities of new and still effective ways of practicing.

There is a program at the University of Pennsylvania Law school, Future of the Profession Initiative, that focus on technological advancements in the profession.[23] The initiative’s Executive Director, Jennifer Leonard, said in an article published in February 2020, mere weeks before the world would be upended by COVID-19, that “The future of law is going to be very different than the law profession has been to this point. The successful lawyers of tomorrow will need to be adaptable in a way that lawyers have never needed to be in the past.” 

So, what does it all mean? Hopefully, it means that even once we get to the other side of COVID-19 we will continue to move forward and think innovatively about the study and practice of the law, bearing in mind what has been learned and accomplished over the last year and embracing the possibilities of technology, innovation and change in both the study and practice of the law.


[1] Anna Williams Shavers, The Impact of Technology on Legal Education, 51 J. of Legal Educ. 407, 407 (2001).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 409.

[5] Id.

[6] Supra note 1, at 410.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Supra note 9, at 588.

[10]  Michele Pistone, Law Schools and Technology: Where We Are and Where We Are Heading, 64 J. of Legal Educ. 586, 586 (2015).

[11] Id. at 592, 603.

[12] Id. at 603.

[13] Id. at 591.

[14] Id.

[15] Supra note 9, at 591.

[16] Erika Winston, Is technology making the practice of law better or worse?, TimeSolv, https://www.timesolv.com/blog/is-technology-making-the-practice-of-law-better-or-worse/ (last visited 03.28.21 10:00 PM EST).

[17] Id.

[18] Law of inertia. Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/law-of-inertia (last visited March 27, 2021).

[19] Catherine Wilson, ‘Awful Impact’: The Long-Lasting Effects of COVID-19 on the Practice of Law, Law.com (December 07, 2020, 10:48 AM), https://www.law.com/dailybusinessreview/2020/12/07/awful-impact-the-long-lasting-effects-of-covid-19-on-the-practice-of-law/?slreturn=20210228140802.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.; Supra note 6.

[23] Supra, note 11.