New class at Notre Dame gets students to think about technology’s impact

February 11, 2015

The discovery process that mandates young associates spend hours reviewing mounds of paper is being turned over to technology that is more efficient and accurate. This software and other technology is taking over the routine legal tasks and, ultimately, changing how attorneys practice.

Lawyers should not feel threatened by the new programs and websites that, in some cases, let lay people handle some of their legal issues, said Jason Boehmig, attorney and legal technology entrepreneur. The new technology actually allows lawyers to fill their true role as counselors, he said.

Boehmig is taking this philosophy back to his alma mater, Notre Dame Law School. This spring semester he has joined another legal technology whiz, Ron Dolin, to teach a class about the new-fangled products entering the legal market.

The course, Legal Technology and Informatics, goes beyond introducing second- and third-year students to the gadgets and programs available today. The class bills itself as preparing students for big changes in the legal profession by getting them to think about how technology is impacting the practice of law and by giving them the ability to evaluate the new products.


informatics-15col.jpg Legal technology entrepreneurs Ron Dolin, pictured on the screen, and Jason Boehmig, seated second from left, pose with some of their students at Notre Dame Law School and guest speaker Eddie Hartman, co-founder of LegalZoom (standing, third from left). (Photo submitted)

Traditionally, technology has been slow to come to the legal profession. The software to do legal work has to be specifically created with many nuances. In addition, attorneys, while dependent on their smartphones and computers, have been skeptical about programs that purport to do lawyerly tasks.

Boehmig believes the legal profession is on the edge of a major change with technology increasingly becoming part of the practice. Firms that do not adopt the automation and mechanization risk falling behind and eventually being overrun by the competition, he said.

During his time at Fenwick & West LLP, Boehmig worked on making the document automation system at the firm more efficient. He helped streamline the process so information that clients put into the online form went directly into the document automation system instead of having to be entered manually by someone at the firm.

Teaching technology

The Notre Dame course has roots in a similar class Dolin taught at Stanford Law School. He is the co-founder of Stanford University’s Program for Legal Technology & Design.

dolin-ron-mug Dolin

Each class in South Bend delves into a different topic and poses thought-provoking questions about the ideas behind the technology and the influence it has on legal functions. Supplementing the classes are guest speakers from such businesses as LegalZoom, Google and law firms like Chicago-based Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

Broadly, the class focuses on the type of data coming into a law office and how that data are managed by the attorneys, Dolin explained. Students examine programs that handle tasks like management of litigation, the processing of documents for transactional work, or providing a statistical profile of contracts to show attorneys the most common clauses.

Dolin maintained the programs are not replacing attorneys but helping them do their jobs better. The software frees lawyers and paralegals from keeping track of data. Still, the technological capabilities can raise ethical concerns over such things as fee splitting, advertising, privacy and the unauthorized practice of law.

Having the ability to understand and evaluate technology will give young lawyers a way to distinguish themselves as they start their careers, Boehmig said. Attorneys who know the capabilities and the potential impact of any new legal technology will stand apart from their colleagues, no matter how long those other lawyers have been practicing. Technologically knowledgeable lawyers will be able to make decisions and gain influence in the office, he said.

From citations to circles

Boehmig’s and Dolin’s legal technology seminar is very different from the kinds of classes law schools typically teach, said Mark McKenna, Notre Dame Law School associate dean for faculty research and development. Usually, technology is wrapped into legal research or legal writing classes.

The experience of a recent Notre Dame graduate underscored to McKenna the need for a technology-focused class. The student told McKenna the knowledge he gained from using a particular software program in an intellectual property class gave him an advantage when he started in practice. From his first day at the firm, the Notre Dame alum knew how to use that technology.

Increasingly, law school graduates are entering legal practices where technology is playing a much different role, McKenna said. New lawyers need to know not only the computer programs currently available but also have an idea where the next technological advance is going to be in the legal field.

Evidence of how quickly technology is coming into the legal profession can be seen in the research tools.

When McKenna graduated from law school in 2000, he was doing legal research on a proprietary computer that accessed the Westlaw and LexisNexis databases. Dolin, during his legal studies, relied more on Google Scholar and Wikipedia to research cases, finding them easier to maneuver.

Now Dolin is an angel investor in Ravel Law, a search engine which produces a visual display of cases. The cases are shown as circles and the bigger the circle, the more times the case has been cited. Also, lines connecting the circles identify the cases related to each other.

More access to justice

Both Boehmig and Dolin are uniquely qualified to teach the technology course at Notre Dame. Boehmig, a 2012 magna cum laude graduate of the law school, is president and CEO of the legal technology company Ironclad Inc. Dolin obtained a law degree after studying and working in the fields of physics and computer science.

Based in Silicon Valley, they applauded the distance-learning capabilities at Notre Dame which allow them and the speakers to attend the class from remote locations when they cannot be there in person.

In talking about the technology, Boehmig and Dolin repeatedly pointed to the access to the legal system that the software and websites can give. Dolin, citing statistics that show two-thirds of the middle class either cannot afford an attorney or cannot afford all the legal help they need, said the structure is broken and technology can help repair it.

Such technology includes an app developed by Ron Staudt, professor of law at the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law, that walks pro se litigants through the legal process; dispute resolution websites which can provide a forum to settle lower-dollar grievances that might not be economical for a lawyer to handle; and virtual law practices that can enable lawyers to deliver services to clients in rural locations.•


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