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Rethinking legal education for 21st-century lawyers

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Tribunal, Court, Election

By Adedoyin Pearse,

Like many other industries in today’s world, the legal profession has been and is undergoing radical changes.

Today’s legal marketplace has witnessed modern trends in globalisation, the emergence of new practice areas in information and communication technology, intellectual property law etc., changing client preferences from delivery of pure legal services to integrated business solutions, the development of new skill sets to perform the emerging roles for lawyers in the evolving legal landscape, and new technologies that are fast transforming the world of work today, among other developments.

To keep up with the demands of a digitally changing world, some law firms and in-house legal departments in several jurisdictions (including Nigeria) have already begun deploying technology to perform routine tasks like legal research, drafting and review of contracts and legal documents as well as for more sophisticated functions like using artificially intelligent chatbots to communicate with clients, and the use of predictive analytical tools in litigation practice to analyse the extensive volume of data that litigators must sort through to develop winning strategies for their cases.

The adoption of recent technological advancements in legal practice has clearly resulted in the efficient delivery of top-notch legal services at a much faster and cost-efficient rate.

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Although most stakeholders in the Nigerian legal industry were until recently quite sceptical of, and slow to embrace various technological tools to aid their practice of law, the COVID-19 pandemic has however accelerated the impending digitalisation of the industry.

The ongoing digital transformation of the legal industry not only reflects the new face of legal practice but critically points to the need for all stakeholders to embrace the broader changes taking place in the industry globally; and the need to reform our system of legal education to adequately prepare lawyers for legal services delivery in the 21st century.

State of legal education in Nigeria

Despite the realities of today’s legal marketplace, the system of legal education in Nigeria has remained mostly unaffected. The current curricula are unsuited to prepare lawyers for the fast-paced and rapidly evolving world we live in characterised by globalisation, fast-changing markets, new technologies and a constant drive towards continued innovation.

From my discussions with young graduates and recent recruits in my department, I have observed that the legal curriculum has remained mostly unchanged from what it was when I graduated from the university and law school over twenty years ago. Although the law school curriculum includes mock trials and topics in law practice management and technology, these are not sufficient to equip lawyers for modern-day practice.

As a result, young lawyers leave the universities and law school with often outdated skill sets and expectations and, struggle upon entry into the profession.

Apart from lacking relevant courses to prepare future lawyers for the changing legal landscape, the curriculum is also devoid of the necessary technical and soft skills needed by lawyers to thrive in the new world of work. Clients are increasingly demanding for creative legal solutions that match their unique business needs.

Given the blurred line between legal advisory services and business advisory services nowadays, lawyers now must read and interpret financial statements and understand the intricacies of each client’s industry. Further, our system of legal education is modelled around traditional legal practice with no thought for the other diverse roles many lawyers now find themselves in.

Apart from acting as heads of legal departments and company secretaries, career opportunities currently exist for lawyers to transit into C-suite roles such as Chief Executive Officers and Chief Operating Officers of organisations. Further, lawyers are now setting up legal tech start-ups and taking on increased policy and regulatory roles in the private and public sectors of the economy.

A lawyer must, therefore, be trained holistically to thrive in various spheres of the legal, business, and public administration world.

The present system trains lawyers to view matters from a legal problem lens only (also referred to as the ‘silo approach’) without consideration of the big picture. As a result, law students lack the requisite soft skills required to navigate and succeed in today’s multi-disciplinary and complex workplace/environment.

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In the real world, lawyers are part of a larger eco-system comprising multiple stakeholders who very often have to leverage on soft skills such as communication, collaboration, influencing, empathy and problem-solving skills (among others) to manage the diverse relationships across the eco-system.

Another major setback is that the legal education curriculum is strictly taught via a theoretical approach with emphasis on high achievements in standardised tests and examinations as an indicator of high performance. As a result, many law students focus on regurgitating the course content back to the lecturers.

A cue from other jurisdictions

Notably, various jurisdictions around the world have kick-started the process of revamping their systems of legal education to align with the realities of modern-day legal practice.

In the U.K., from where we inherited the common law and our system of legal education, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is embarking on reforming the process of qualifying as a solicitor by shifting the focus from doctrinal knowledge of the law to practical legal skills such as case analysis and experiential learning via apprenticeships and jobs that require critical thinking. In the U.S.A., the American Bar Association’s new experiential learning requirement combines three elements: (a) lecture, (b) supervised, hands-on student exercises, and (c) reflection (lessons learned).

Recommendations

The current methods of teaching and examining students in law faculties and at the Nigerian law school must be remodelled to ensure that the practical relevance of the course content is not lost on students. Given the evolving legal marketplace, the curriculum should be flexible and adaptable to accommodate hard skills in emerging areas such as data privacy, cybersecurity, data analytics, coding and understanding algorithms to handle new datasets; and emerging technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence.

Further, the content of existing courses should frequently be updated to reflect current realities. Technology is going to be a game-changer in the profession, and law students must be trained with the skillsets to optimise opportunities that evolve with the adoption of new technologies. For example, as virtual hearings become commonplace, new advocacy skillsets will be required.

Lengthy pleadings will likely be replaced by infographics, PowerPoint slides and other digital visual presentation formats. Virtual hearings will also create emerging opportunities in the Electronic Dispute Resolution (EDR) space more particularly for tech-savvy litigators/lawyers interested in developing applications to facilitate this.

Our legal education system should produce tech-savvy lawyers, who are conversant with recent innovations and are well equipped to face the future of the profession.

Rather than mainly delivering lectures, students should also be engaged through the case study approach, which involves recreating and acting out case studies of legal principles in court decisions, legislations and real-life situational challenges confronting clients. Further, more strategic partnerships with other faculties in the universities like the business schools and computer sciences among others will help foster a holistic learning experience for law students.

Entrepreneurial skills should also be included in the curriculum at the Law School to equip law students with requisite skills to enable them to set up their ventures and practice law outside the limits of paid employment. This is significantly critical as the number of lawyers churned out from the law school yearly (over 4000) far exceeds the number of available jobs in the market.

In Israel, the university system and the mandatory military service program includes entrepreneurship programmes where young graduates are exposed to entrepreneurial skills. It is no coincidence that many of these young graduates venture into start-ups right after their military service year.

Law Faculties and the Law School should forge strategic partnerships with in-house legal departments, law firms, accounting and consulting firms and alternative legal service providers to provide more internship opportunities for students and expose students to legal practice.

Fortunately, some law faculties are already collaborating with law firms and organisations to offer internships to their students. However, this should be adopted as a mandatory part of the undergraduate programme across all law faculties in Nigeria.

Adedoyin Pearse is the Company Secretary and General Counsel of Siemens Energy Limited

Vanguard

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