Envisaging the Law School of the Future – by Linden Thomas (Birmingham Law School)

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Birmingham Law School’s Centre for Professional Legal Education and Research (CEPLER) encompasses activities within the Law School that focus on legal education and the legal profession. As well as conducting research in these areas, the Centre has a substantial student-facing offering, largely aimed at preparing students for graduate employment. Its portfolio includes a busy careers and employability programme, a large pro bono provision and annual advocacy competitions.

CEPLER’s Steering Group, which meets annually, consists of representatives from a range of legal practice and academic backgrounds, who come together to offer guidance and give direction on the future development of the Centre’s activity. Taking inspiration from the University’s ‘Big Conversation’, the 2017 meeting seemed the appropriate forum in which to garner the views of experienced legal professionals as to how they think Birmingham Law School should be preparing law graduates by 2026. Several themes emerged from that discussion.

First, what it means to be a lawyer is changing. Attendees spoke of technological advances that have already altered elements of legal practice beyond recognition in recent years. Far less client interaction now takes place face to face. Where once legal work was the province of a relatively small body of qualified lawyers, regulatory changes and the advent of new technology have meant that more and more of it now can be (and is being) done by ‘non-lawyers’. Legal processes have been subject to re-engineering, whereby large tasks are broken down into discrete elements that can often be performed by a lower skilled workforce, or even by computer programmes.  Even within the Court system, where tradition and ceremony still abound, the impact of technology is starting to be felt, for example, via the introduction of e-disclosure and digital case systems.  These developments will continue to alter both the shape of the legal workforce and what it means to practise law.

It was unanimously accepted by the Group that this change is happening at such a pace that it is almost impossible to know what legal practice in 2026 will look like. So how can we, as a law school, plan to prepare our graduates for a world that we cannot yet envisage? Our Steering Group had some suggestions.

To succeed, law graduates of the future who wish to practise law will have to be more than just ‘knowledge workers’. To know the law and to be able to assess and articulate its application to a given situation will not be enough.  Indeed, some of the Group felt that this knowledge would not even be essential.  Instead, they argued, it will be the skills and attributes that tomorrow’s graduates possess that will set them apart and enable them to succeed.  Although we might not know exactly what legal practice of the future might look like, we can be confident that change will be the only constant.  Law schools therefore need to consider how they help to prepare graduates to handle persistent change, transformation and reinvention.  Attributes such as resourcefulness, adaptability and resilience were all considered crucial.

Inevitably, another skill identified as essential, was a familiarity with, and an understanding of, technology. Some steering group members felt that universities of the future ought to teach coding as standard.  Others suggested that, by the time that students enter university, they will probably already have learnt coding at school.  In any event, graduates of the future who can harness the power of technology to provide solutions to inefficiencies and problems in legal processes will be invaluable.  Our Steering Group members felt that there is at present a skills gap within the legal profession.  Most lawyers in practice today were trained in a time before smartphones, social media, bots and avatars.  Many do not know enough about technology; know what it might be capable of and how it might be harnessed to improve the speed, quality and/or cost of legal service provision.  Whereas graduates in 2026 will never have known a world without smart technology. What is unfamiliar or unknown to many of today’s lawyers will be innate in the next generation of recruits to the profession.

So, is there a way to bring all this together? To engender familiarity with technology alongside a positive relationship to change? Perhaps, our Steering Group suggested, we ought to challenge our law students by presenting them with difficult, real world, legal problems to which technology might be a solution. In doing so, we can seek to develop thinkers who are prepared to meet the challenges of legal practice in the 21st century.  By going through the process of encountering problems, then designing, reflecting on and re-engineering solutions, tomorrow’s students become comfortable as agents of change.  They will experience change as a positive and grow accustomed to adapting and responding to new challenges.

Good lawyers always have, and always will be, problem solvers. The onus on law schools is to recognise that the nature of some of the problems is changing rapidly – and so are the solutions.

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