Rethinking Legal Education for the 21st – Century Lawyer
Rethinking Legal Education for the 21st-Century Lawyer Today’s Legal Marketplace
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.
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. In the sudden switch from brick and mortar offices and courts to online legal practice law firms, corporate legal departments and the justice administration have had to rapidly adapt to new ways of delivering legal services while leveraging technology to ensure business continuity and access to justice for litigants.
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.
Current 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. The curriculum is modelled mainly on the traditional doctrinal law courses and little else. 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 skillsets and expectations and, struggle upon entry into the profession. Some learn quickly on the job and eventually settle in, but not many have understanding employers who can wait long enough for an employee to learn the ropes.
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.
I recall that part of my reasons for choosing to study Law was because I was not a great fan of Mathematics. I gladly got away with it throughout my legal education. However, on entering the world of practice, I was faced with advising businesses on legal matters that had financial implications, and I struggled. I had no choice but to upskill to meet the new demands of professional practice. As a matter of urgency, I had to become financially literate, handle tax computations, learn project management and other vital skills relevant to my industry; otherwise, I risked losing several great opportunities. Employers now demand multi-disciplinary skills; knowing the law is now a baseline, having the necessary additional skills makes all the difference.
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. 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. Although our primary role as lawyers in this eco-system is to act as custodian of laws, it is also equally important that we understand the needs and pressure points of each stakeholder to proffer the best in class, legally compliant solution that supports and maximises value to our clients.
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. Curiously, much of what students must memorise now exists in the form of software in real life as many legal tech solutions have helped to automate and make legal processes such as research more efficient.
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).
A handful of universities in the U.K and the U.S.A. are also making significant changes to their curriculum to ensure more collaboration with the faculties in the school like the business schools and computer sciences, among others and achieve a well-rounded training for law students.
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. This helps to foster soft skills such as collaboration, communication, creative thinking, project management and problem-solving skills while also adapting to a global perspective. 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, where I recently visited, 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.
Also, law faculties and the law school should always encourage lawyers with expertise in various fields of law to take classes as visiting professors, thereby sharing their wealth of experience and practical insights with students. During a recent course in Legal Technology and Innovation, apart from the faculty lecturers and professors, we also had visiting professors who were working professionals from big tech companies like Google, HP and Facebook, who gave more practical insight in technology and the business of law.
Moreover, there should be increased funding to enable law faculties and law school campuses with unconducive and decrepit facilities to renovate or replace them with state-of-the-art learning facilities. Clinical legal education and optimal use of technology must be adopted to provide the best learning experience for law students.
Law students should also be encouraged to study an additional international language before graduation. Foreign language skills provide an advantage for lawyers working on complex, cross border business transactions as understanding the language of the marketplace helps in negotiation, partnering and collaborative work.
While it is acknowledged that not every course or skill can be embedded in the curriculum, law students must be given a good foundation on the relevant technical and soft skills needed for the world of practice. Although like every other profession, some experiences can only be gained on the job, a holistic curriculum will, however, ease the lawyer’s transition into practice and enable the lawyer to easily up-skill and re-skill as and when necessary. Remodelling the learning experience for law students will produce lawyers who can quickly adapt to the demands of professional practice in the 21st century.
There is a very urgent need to restructure our painfully outdated and restricted curriculum, and indeed our entire system of legal education to ensure that students are trained for jobs of the future, not the past. Globalisation has also made it more necessary than ever, for legal education to produce law graduates that can compete with their counterparts globally.
The Council of Legal Education, the Nigerian Universities Commission and other stakeholders, should urgently develop or fast-track any ongoing initiatives to revamp the curricula and learning experience for law students to meet the realities of legal services delivery in these times as the pandemic has accelerated technology adoption in the profession. There will be no return to the status quo! With the disruptive changes ushered in by the global pandemic, the future has come much earlier. We need to prepare lawyers for the digital age and the new way of delivering legal services.
Although COVID-19 has brought these pressing issues to the fore, it is essential to note that the reform of legal education in Nigeria has been long overdue. While revamping legal education will provide a quantum leap, lawyers who want to remain relevant must go beyond the curriculum and continuously upskill to meet the demands of the legal market while positioning themselves for the emerging opportunities ahead.
On a concluding note, I strongly encourage law students, practising lawyers and all the stakeholders involved in the reform of the legal education curricula in Nigeria to read a copy of the book “Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future by Richard Susskind”. It provides exciting and thought-provoking insights into the future of the legal profession.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer, Siemens Energy Limited.
Adedoyin Pearse is the Company Secretary and General Counsel of Siemens Energy Limited, an affiliate of Siemens AG, offering fully integrated world-class products, solutions, and services across the energy value chain of oil and gas production, power generation, transmission, and distribution. She is an experienced energy and taxation law professional, technology enthusiast and a member of Siemens global legal technology practice group, an in-house advisory group with the mandate to evaluate, drive and support the implementation of tech tools and promote a digital mindset across corporate legal departments at Siemens.