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Kirchberger Christine

The growing usage of apps meant it was only a matter of time until they would find their way into legal education. Following up on a previously published article on LaaS – Law as a Service, this post discusses different ways that apps can be included into the law degree curriculum.

1 Changing legal education through the use of apps

There are different ways in which apps can be used in legal education in order to better prepare students for the legal profession. In this post we suggest three different possibilities for the usage of apps, reflecting different pedagogical styles and learning outcomes. What each of the suggestions has in common is to bring legal education closer to the real-life work of lawyers.

Through identifying aspects in which we perceive legal education as lacking quality or quantity, we apply and implement these to our suggestions for changed legal education. The aspects we view as lacking are: identifying and managing risks, the interaction between different areas of law, and proactive problem-based learning. To take each of these briefly in turn:

  • managing risks is something that practicing lawyers and other legal service professionals must do on a daily basis. Law is not only about applying legal rules but also about weighing options, estimating possible outcomes and deciding upon which risks to accept. Legal education has not traditionally included this in the curriculum, and students have arguably very little experience of such training in their studies.
  • interaction between different areas of law is often hard to incorporate in legal studies, which follow a block or module structure. Each course provides students with in-depth knowledge of that particular legal area. However, the interaction between such modules is lacking, with teachers often unaware of the content of preceding or succeeding courses. For students, a problem with this module structure can be that they forget the content of a course studied at an earlier stage in their education.
  • problem-based learning is generally encouraged and applied in legal education. However, most problem-based learning (PBL) is reactive, asking students to evaluate the legal consequences of a scenario that has already played out, instead of training students purely in after-the-fact solutions, in other words “clearing up the legal mess.” PBL should be made more proactive, aiming to train students in identifying and counteracting problems before they arise. This can also be viewed as an implementation of the first aspect, managing risks.

In aiming to include these aspects in legal education, we view technology as playing an important role. Perhaps ideally, the whole legal education could be re-structured in order to include such practical aspects that reflect the current legal profession; however, such change is perhaps too complex and viewed as somewhat unnecessary by those who are able to make such changes - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. An app is not necessarily the sole possible implementation method, but it serves as an example of how these aspects can relatively easily be brought within legal education.

The first teaching approach looks at legal aspects of apps themselves, where the apps are viewed as objects within law. Here students are provided with a set problem and are encouraged to consider how different areas of law may apply to the app in question, and how the various areas impact on each other. This approach implements both PBL and the interaction of different legal fields. Proactiveness may also be included by asking students to identify legal risks of the app, and how such risks could by reduced through the use of law.

The second approach brings together technology and law, and is as such a suitable suggestion for inclusion in a legal informatics course, or as part of more general jurisprudence. Students are given the task of developing a legal service app, and thus must implement law through a technological tool. Students must first identify a need for a service within an area of law of their choosing, and then develop an app which provides the service. This approach implements both PBL and proactiveness, and can also require students to consider both legal and technical risks.

The third approach aims to add value to the legal education as a whole, by making available an app to students to be used alongside teaching, complementing the existing education. Students are provided with the opportunity to test their knowledge, and combine different areas of study through interactive learning. Depending on the design of the app, this approach has the possibility of implementing all aspects: PBL, interaction of legal fields, and proactiveness or risk management.

2 Legal aspects of apps

Legal education in many countries around the world is set up as linear blocks of different legal fields and subject areas. As law is often divided into various sub-fields--such as private law, public law, administrative law, environmental law, or information technology law--it appears only natural to discuss and teach the subjects one by one. The amount of material to be learned by the student would otherwise be overwhelming. While in some countries, exams might encompass multiple fields of law, subjects are being taught in a consecutive order.

Though the pedagogical reasons for the linearity in legal education are convincing, some improvements are still possible. One idea that we would like to discuss here are legal aspects of apps that intertwine different legal fields and challenge the students to analyze one particular phenomena from various different legal angles. We are not suggesting any particular fora for this exercise; these might stretch from traditional in-class seminars to online e-learning platforms to a mixture of the two and be included in law school curricula either as compulsory or selective modules.

Apps and information communication technologies, in general, do not adhere to geographical, physical or time related boundaries. They inherently challenge the traditional legal system based on bricks and mortar. In this regard they are, therefore, well-suited for legal analysis.

Another reason to use apps as the object for analysis by students is their popularity among the younger (and older) generation and therefore the close relationship students have to them to start with. As an example, one can compare it to using Facebook when discussing privacy, as opposed to showing a large company’s employee database.

In order to reflect the real-life experience of the exercise even more, the students would be allocated a certain expert area. As at law firms, one student would be an expert in intellectual property rights, another in contract law, another in privacy, international law, consumer rights issues, etc.

The students would --from the perspective of their expert area--firstly investigate possible legal issues with a specific gaming app, for example. They would analyze the application of the rules and norms within their field and identify potential conflicts or loopholes within these rules. Their investigation would include testing the app itself, as well as looking at possible end-user agreements and other applicable contractual agreements between the user, the app store and the developer of the app.

The next step would be to identify and discuss possible overlaps, discrepancies and conflicts between the different areas of law in relation to the app. The exercise should result in a written and/or oral report of the different legal issues involved and solutions to potential conflicts between the law and the app.

Adding another layer of real-life scenario, each group could be asked to present their findings to an imaginative client who is the producer of the app. This simulation would allow the students not only to develop a legal analysis based on correlating fields of law but also to present the analysis to non-lawyers, translating legal jargon into understandable everyday language.

The exercise--analyzing an existing app--very much fits into the idea often conveyed in legal education that law is applied after an incident occurs. In order to add a level of proactivity, students could be asked to analyze an app under production, before it is launched. This would guarantee more proactive thinking by the students asking them to foresee potential conflicts and avoid them, rather than discussing legal issues after they have arisen.

While the exercise as such might not be a revolutionary idea, we think that the increased inclusion of such exercises in legal education would contribute to better preparation of students for their life as young lawyers.

3 Law’s implementation in apps

While the previous exercise fits well within the traditional legal education by asking students to deliver a legal analysis, a topic less discussed in undergraduate legal studies is how to employ technology for delivering law. With a few exceptions, students generally focus on analyzing the law rather than implementing law in technology.Change Priorities

Until several years ago legal analysis was the main business for lawyers, so legal education well reflected the profession. In the last few years, however, legal services delivered via and as technology have increased and opened up a new market for lawyers and legal professionals. This change should be reflected in legal education in order to prepare students for their future.

While the idea is not to replace lawyers with apps or software, an app or another technology could either help lawyers in their working tasks or deliver law as a valuable service for consumers, citizens, companies or organizations. Examples of such apps, both for lawyers and end-users, are mentioned in a post at iinek’s blog and Slaw; shorter lists can be found on iinek’s Delicious page and the iPad4lawyers blog.

In the exercise, students would look at law from a different perspective, i.e. how legal regulations affect the individual or organization. Going away from a linear text approach, students would have to translate law into a format that users or apps can read. In other words, law would have to suit the user/app, and not the other way around. Students would, therefore, have to go beyond text and translate rules into flowcharts, diagrams, mind maps and other visual tools in order for the app to be able to follow the law’s instructions.

Implementing legal rules into technology, therefore, not only encourages students to think proactively but it also motivates them to identify solutions for the application of the law and how rules could be transformed into practice. From a pedagogical point of view the exercise would allow the students to think about different aspects of law beyond the traditional case or contract. It would also encourage a wider viewpoint of law as a tool in society.

Again, how the exercise is included in the curriculum is a matter of taste. Technical assistance is of importance, in order for students to know what aspects to take into account and what schematics developers need in order to be able to create an app. The exercise could be set up as a competition (Georgetown Law School - Iron Tech Lawyer) with an expert jury consisting of practicing lawyers and developers.

4 Legal education as an app

Talking about legal education as an app can have different meanings. While legal apps (for lawyers and individuals) and educational apps are rather common these days, legal educational apps are not so developed, yet.Puzzle

Legal education, as mentioned, is traditionally taught in blocks or modules, with very few references and links between them. This setup clearly has its benefits, not least logistically. There are clear arguments in favor of such an approach; planning and studying becomes easier for teachers and students alike, time limitations mean that implementing an approach that makes connections between each subject is hard. This is where we believe that technology has the potential to play an important role. Technology is not bound to physical classrooms and attendance requirements of students or teachers. It has the ability to be accessed at a time of the student’s choosing, without placing additional demands on instructors.

A legal education app could provide the key in aiding students to make connections between their study areas; it could be made to fit alongside a law degree, assuming a student’s knowledge in sync with their level of study, by including content from both current and past courses. The app would offer an easy way to implement an interactive, problem-based learning approach. It could provide additional content, quizzes, exercises, social media functions etc. complementing the education and enabling a holistic perspective.

Although no teacher-student relationship is required here, clearly pedagogical thinking would need to play a strong role so that a worthwhile learning environment for the individual could be created. Much time and effort would need to be invested in planning, and the application itself would need to be flexible to adjust to different study plans and so forth. Another issue is, of course, who would make the app. As curricula vary from law school to law school, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, such an app is ideally built by those who know the curriculum. Such “in-house” expertise also means that potential bias from outside factors should be avoided.

Legal apps have already been introduced to help lawyers study for qualifying exams, e.g. BarMax. (These are often, however, still very topic-specific.) Implementing the same kind of thinking at the educational level would start to prepare students for their future workplace, allowing them to be better prepared for helping clients with real-world scenarios dealing with complex and interrelating legal issues. If students begin such thinking at the beginning of their legal studies, it becomes normal, arguably allowing for better educated graduates.

This last approach is perhaps a little future-oriented (although not as much as, for example, grading by technology), and it is of course not easy to implement at the university level; academics must work together with app developers to produce a tool of real value to students. However, even a slimmed-down version of such an app can be a tool for helping students prepare for exams, test their knowledge of legal areas, or simply make sure that they have understood concepts covered in teaching. Some examples of such implementations in legal education are shown here.

5 Conclusions

There is no doubt that apps are the future for legal services. To what extent they will be included in legal education is yet to be decided. Here we have shown three differing approaches that could help in this regard. Implementation of any or all of these would bring in aspects that are currently lacking in legal education.

Rather often discussions on technology and legal education focus on e-learning and online teaching environments. In our opinion, traditional offline exercises and their pedagogical value should not be underestimated, with technology offering an excellent platform as an object, tool or companion during legal education and life as a lawyer.

6 Sources

Christine KirchbergerChristine Kirchberger is a doctoral candidate & lecturer in legal informatics at the Swedish Law and Informatics Research Institute (IRI). Her research focuses on legal information retrieval, the concept of legal information within the framework of the doctrine of legal sources and also examines the information-seeking behaviour of lawyers. Christine blogs at iinek.wordpress.com and can be found as @iinek on Twitter.

Pam StorrPam Storr is a lecturer at the Swedish Law and Informatics Research Institute (IRI), and course director for the Master Programme in Law and Information Technology at Stockholm University. Her main areas of interest are within information technology and intellectual property law. Pam is the editor for IRI’s blog, Blawblaw, and can be found as @pamstorr on Twitter.

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed. The information above should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal representation, please consult a lawyer.

Within the field of legal informatics, discussions often focus on the technical and methodological questions of access to legal information. The topics can range from classification of legal documents to conceptual retrieval methods and Automatic Detection of Argumentation in Legal Cases. Researchers and businesses try to increase both precision and recall in order to improve search results for lawyers, while public administrations open up the process of legislating for the benefit of democracy and openness. Where are, however, the benefits for laypersons not familiar with retrieving legal information? Does clustering of legal documents, for example, yield a legal text any more understandable for a citizen?

To answer these questions, I would like to go back to the beginning, the purpose of law. Unfortunately for us lawyers, law is not created for us, but to serve as the oil that keeps society running smoothly. One can imagine two scenarios to apply the oil: If the motor has not been taken care of sufficiently, some extra greasy oil might be necessary to get it running again (i.e. if all amicable solutions are exhausted, some sort of dispute resolution is required), this would be the retroactive approach. The other possible application is to add enough oil during driving, so the engine will continue running smoothly without any additional boost, in other words trying to avoid disputes, this would be the proactive line of thinking.

How can proactive law work for the citizens? The basic assumption would be that in order to avoid disputes, one has to be aware of possible legal risks and how to prevent them. In line with the position of the European Union, we can further assume that the assessment and evaluation of risks requires relevant information about the legal facts at hand. It is only possible for a citizen to reach a decision regarding, for example, social benefits or certain rights as an employee, if she or he is aware of the various legal rights and obligations as well as possible legal outcomes.

Having stipulated that legal information is the core requirement for being able to exercise one’s rights as a citizen, the next questions would include which type of information is actually necessary, who should be responsible to communicating it and how it should be provided. These questions I would like to discuss below.  That is, we will talk about why, what, who and how.

Why?

ignorance

Before we move on to the main theme at hand on access to legal information, I would like to highlight a few more things about the why. As already mentioned, and as many legal philosophers have noted, law is the clockwork that makes society click. The principle Ignorantia juris neminem excusat (Ignorance of the law is no excuse) is commonly accepted as one of the foundations of modern civilization. But how would we define ignorance in today’s world? What if a citizen has troubles finding the necessary information despite endless efforts? What if she or he, after finding the relevant information, is not able to understand it? Does this mean she or he is still ignorant?

Public access to legal information is also a question of democracy, because citizens’ insight into politics, governmental work and the lawmaking process is a necessary prerequisite for public trust in the legislative body.

"In shifting from infrastructure to integration and then to transformation, a more holistic framework of connected governance is required. Such a framework recognizes the networking presence of e-government as both an internal driver of transformation within the public sector and an external driver of societal learning and collective adaptation for the jurisdiction as a whole." (UN e-Government Survey 2008)

In this spirit, governments should consider the management of knowledge an increasing importance. "The essence of knowledge management (KM) is to provide strategies to get the right knowledge to the right people at the right time and in the right format." (UN e-Government Survey 2008) What, then, is the right knowledge?

What?

The term legal information is as obvious as the word law. It is both apparent and imprecise, and yet we use it rather often. Several scholars have tried to define legal information and legal knowledge, inter alia, Peter Wahlgren in 1992, Erich Schweighofer in 1999, and Robert Richards in 2009.

books

If we consider the term from a layperson’s perspective, one could define it as the data, the facts and figures, that are necessary to solve an issue--one that cannot be handled amicably--between two persons (either legal or physical). In order for a layperson to be able to utilize legal information she or he has to be able to access, read, understand and apply the information.

The accessing element is one of the tasks that legal information institutes fulfill so elegantly. The term "reading" is here to be understood as information that can be grasped either with one’s eyes or ears. The complexity begins when it comes to understanding and applying the information. A layperson might have difficulties understanding and applying the Act on income tax even though the law is accessible and readable.

Is this information then still legal information if we assume that the word “information” means that somebody can receive certain signs and data and use this data meaningful in order to increase her or his knowledge? "Knowledge and information […] influence in a reciprocal way. Information modifies knowledge and knowledge guides potential use of information." (Schweighofer)

If a layperson does not understand the information provided by official sources, she or he might refer to other information sources, for example by utilizing a Google search. In this case, the question arises how reliable the retrieved information is, however comprehensible. A high ranking in Google search does not automatically relate to high quality of the information even though this might be a common misconception, especially for laypersons not trained in source criticism. Here the importance of providing citizens with some basic and comprehensible information becomes apparent.

This comprehensible information might include more than plain text-based legislation and court decisions. Of interest for the layperson (both in business-consumer as well as government-citizen situations) can furthermore be, inter alia,

  • additional requirements according to terms and conditions or specific procedural rules in public administrations
  • possible legal outcomes and necessary facts that lead to them
  • estimated time of delivery of the product or the decision
  • creditability of the business, including the amount of pending cases before the courts or complaints before the consumer protection authorities.

For a citizen it might also be very significant to know how she or he could behave differently in order to reach a desired result. Typically, citizens are only provided with the information as to how the legal situation is, but not what they could do to improve it, unless they contact a lawyer.

Commonly all these types of data already exist, if maybe not in one location. The most – technically – accessible information are traditional legal sources, such as legislation and case-law. Again, here the question mainly focuses on how to provide and utilize the existing information in a fashion understandable to the user.

"Like any other content transmitted through a communication system, primary legal sources can be rendered more or less understandable, locatable, and hence effective by structuring and presenting them differently for different audiences. And secondary sources must of course be constructed for a particular market, audience, or level of understanding. "(Tom Bruce)

Who should then be responsible for structuring, presenting and rendering it understandable, especially in the light of source criticism and trust?

Who?

Ignorantia juris neminem excusat presupposes that the legal information provided is correct and of high quality. Who can guarantee such a quality? The state, private entities, research facilities, non-governmental organizations or citizens? My answer would be that all could contribute their part of the game.

One should, however, keep in mind, that user-friendliness is not the same as trustworthiness, which leads to the question of how to ensure that citizens are supplied with the right answers? In a world where even governments do not always take responsibility for the correctness of the provided information, such as in the case of online publications for law gazettes, the question remains who, or what entity, should be held liable for the accuracy of its services. But even if a public authority would sustain accountability, to what extent could that influence an already reached legal decision?

The answer of who should provide a certain legal information service could also depend on who the target group of the information is.

"The legal information market is really no longer conceivable as bipolar – it can no longer be seen as a question of lawyers on the one hand versus a largely legally ignorant everyone else on the other. […] Internet-based legal information systems are used by many cases and conditions of people for many different reasons. […] Probably the most interesting group [are] non-lawyer professionals. These are people whose interest in law is vital, ongoing, and professional rather than either being casual and hobby-like or sporadic and trauma-driven. […] Such new and diverse audiences require new and diverse legal information architectures. They will want specialized collections of law of particular relevance to them. They will want those collections organized and presented in ways that reflect their profession or their situation, in ways that collections organized according to the legal abstractions and legal terms in use by lawyers do not. They are concerned with situations and fact-patterns rather than theories, doctrines, and concepts. They are, in short, a very intelligent and exciting type of lay users, and a potentially enormous audience. '(Tom Bruce)

Non-lawyer professionals probably constitute a large market for businesses that can tailor their services to a specific group and therefore render them profitable, as the services are considered of value for these professionals.

Traditional laypersons, however, typically do not represent a large market power simply because they will not always be willing to pay for services of this kind. This leaves them to the hands of other stakeholders such as public administrations, research institutes, non-governmental organizations and private initiatives. As already mentioned, conventionally the raw data is supplied by public administrations.  The question, then, is how to deliver it to the end-user.

How?

The Austrian civil code knows two concepts regarding fulfilling one’s part of the contract, Holschuld and Bringschuld. Holschuld means a debt to be collected from the debtor at his residence. Bringschuld constitutes an obligation to be performed at creditor’s habitual residence. In today’s terminology, one could compare Holschuld with pull technology and Bringschuld with push technology. In other words, should the citizens pick up the relevant legal information or should the government actively deliver it at people’s doorsteps, so to speak?

delivery

In the offline paper world, the only way to reach a citizen was to send a letter to her or his house. Obviously, information technology offers many more possibilities when it comes to communicating with citizens, either via a computer or even a mobile phone, taking privacy concerns into consideration.

Several e-government and initiatives (video feed from European Parliament sessions and EU’s channel at Youtube) increase the public participation and insight into politics. While these programs are an important contribution to democracy, they typically do not facilitate daily encounters with legal issues of employment, family, consumer, taxes or housing, or provide citizens with the necessary information to do so.

In this respect, technologies enabling interactivity and re-use of public information are of greater importance, the latter also being a strategic concern of the European Union.  In particular, semantic technology offers solutions for transforming raw data into comprehensible information for citizens. Here, practical examples that utilize at least part of this technology can also be found within e-government projects as well as in private initiatives.

The next step would be law being built into the code already. Intelligent agents negotiate the most advantageous terms and conditions for their owner, cars prevent being switched on if the driver exceeds the permitted alcohol level (Ignition interlock device) and music songs do not play unless your device is authorized (iTunes).

So, from a technological point of view, anything from presenting legal information on a website to implementing law directly into the end device is possible. In practice, though, most governments are content with providing textual legal information, at best in a structured format so it can be re-used easier. The technical implementation of more advanced functions is often left to other market players and businesses.

There are two initiatives in this respect that are worth mentioning, one being a true private project in Sweden and the other one being provided by the Austrian government.

Lagen.nu (law now) has been around for some time now as a private initiative offering free access to Swedish legislation and case law. Recently the site was extended by adding commentaries to specific statutes, which should enable laypersons to understand certain legislation. The site includes explanations for certain terminology and particular comments are also categorized and include links to other laws and cases.

The other example, HELP, a service provided by the Austrian Government Agency, structures and presents legal information depending on the factual situation, e.g. it contains categories such as employment, housing, education, finances, family and social services. The relevant legal requirements are then explained in plain text and the responsible authority is listed and linked to.  In some cases the necessary procedure can even be initiated through the web site.

Both projects are fine examples of the possible transformation of legal information from pull to push technology. They are not quite there yet, though.

The answer

The question we are faced with now is not so much how or which technique would be the best, but rather in which situation a citizen might need certain legal information. Somebody trying to purchase a book via a web site might need information at that moment, and either as a warning text or a check list or its intelligent agent, the purchaser might go to another web site that has better ratings and more favorable legal terms and conditions and no pending law suits. In some other cases, the citizen might need certain information in a specific situation right at the spot.  For example, while filling out a form she or he might want to know what would be most favorable choice, rather than simply the type of personal data required for the form. Depending on the situation, different approaches might be more valuable than others.

The larger issue at hand is where the information is retrieved and who is the provider of the information. In other words, trust is an important factor, particularly trust of the information provider. As previously stated, legal information is not usually provided by public bodies but instead is rerouted through various other entities, such as businesses, organizations and individual efforts. This increases the importance of source criticism even more.

In many cases citizens will use general portals such as Google or Wikipedia to search for information, rather than going directly to the source, most often because citizens are not aware of the services offered. This underlines the importance for legal information providers to co-operate with other communication channels in order to increase their visibility.

The necessary legal information is out there, it just remains to be seen if and how it reaches the citizens. Or to put it in other words: The prophet still has to come to the mountain, but in time, with the increasing use of technology, maybe the mountain will come a bit closer.

ChristineKirchberger

Christine Kirchberger has been a junior lecturer at the Swedish Law and Informatics Research Institute, Stockholm University) since 2001. Besides teaching law and IT she is currently writing her PhD thesis on Legal information as a tool where she focuses on legal information retrieval, the concept of legal information within the framework of the doctrine of legal sources and also takes a look at the information-seeking behavior of lawyers.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt.