The Rise of Intelligent Tools and Experiential Learning
25 June 2020

The Rise of ‘Intelligent Tools’ and Experiential Learning

Published on 25 June 2020

Chris Norris has seen automation accelerate the pace of change in legal innovation. Tasks previously part of the purview of lawyers-in-training are now automated. Concurrently, the ease of accessing free legal assistance online has spurred lawyers to show value in broader and deeper ways than ever before.

As Executive Director of Santa Clara University’s Ciocca Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Chris is charged with leading the university’s central hub for innovation, which includes legal innovation. 

I think that the biggest change I’ve seen is the amazing automation of so many legal tasks,” said Chris. For example, it’s trivial to perform background searches on almost any topic.  Patent firms can use software to analyze patent claim structures and determine which have the highest success rates of being upheld in the courts; discovery is now automated and focused – making obfuscation during discovery and depositions much more difficult.  This automation makes the traditional path of associate/partner in law firms more difficult for students to attain.  In fact, I think it’s a rarity for law students to be able to find these traditional roles.

Another area of innovation involves the ease by which consumers can find legal information and tools online.

There are many websites and tools available for creating legal entities without the help of a lawyer,” said Chris. “Many legal questions can be answered simply by using Google, or one of the many ‘free advice’ websites and blogs.  The need for legal assistance, especially paid legal assistance, is much less now than it was even ten years ago.

Decline of traditional law firm presents enormous opportunity 

Chris believes that legal innovation - and the decline of the traditional law firm - presents enormous opportunity for industry.

Companies and businesses can hire law students just coming out of school into a variety of ‘related’ roles – such as finance, marketing, supply chain, contracts, etc.,” said Chris.

The skills and knowledge attained during law school are highly relevant in these roles – but get applied directly to the activities of the business.  I think this is a big opportunity for students who want to practice law because it will open up many more employment opportunities, in different industries and geographies than traditional law firm jobs.  It also will more efficiently leverage a law grad’s undergraduate and pre-law school employment experience.

Chris has also seen a significant rise in tools to automate legal functions.

For example, there are services that analyze executive offer letters and provide guidance on terms – to the extent that legal reviews of those documents are minimized or eliminated,” said Chris. This moves ‘power’ into the hands of those outside the legal profession, but creates a certain threat to traditional legal revenue streams. 

The aggregation of knowledge and best practices is minimizing the importance of legal firms even in traditional areas, such as venture financing.  Companies routinely use SAFE convertible notes to raise money in Silicon Valley without any legal help at all.  Even traditional venture financing tends to use similar structures and can be reviewed on an exception basis rather than created organically from the ground up.

Essentially, any traditional legal function that can be automated or made intelligent through machine learning (AI), is threatened.

Innovate to simplify complex automation tools

While the legal industry has seen a steep increase in the number of increasingly intelligent tools available to assist legal process work, these tools often come with a major learning curve.

I expect a drive towards simplification,” said Chris. The early versions of automation and online tools may have removed entire categories of human workers, but they are often not simple to use. 

For example, the Salesforce CRM has eliminated countless data entry and sales associated jobs,” observed Chris. There is simply not much need for ‘back office’ sales infrastructure compared to ten or twenty years ago.  But Salesforce is a complicated tool to use!  And most tools like it are also cumbersome and have long learning curves – Workday, Concur, etc.  I think we will see a push towards simplification and that complexity will become ‘hidden’.

Given all of that, I don’t see the same level of disruption happening in the areas of social justice.  This may mean that the area is ripe for transformation – I can imagine that immigration law might be ripe for reinvention.  But for now, criminal and social law might remain a calm space in the storm.

Experiential learning essential

In such a swiftly shifting environment, law schools must strike an effective balance between traditional academic learning and experiential, hands-on practice.

Law students need experiential learning,” said Chris. “The job market is speaking…and it says they want new employees who can hit the ground running.  Businesses aren’t going to spend four years or more training an associate.  They don’t do that for ANY role! 

Students in other disciplines know that if they want to get a job when they graduate, they had better have a portfolio or projects and internships to discuss with potential employers,” said Chris. That’s because employers are looking for self-starters and self-learners.  I strongly believe that as educators we are responsible for educating the ‘whole person’, which includes academic learning, social and global awareness, and interdisciplinary and experiential learning.  I think that’s true at the undergraduate level, the graduate level and the professional degree level.

Learn how to leverage your legal education

Chris encourages students to think broadly and openly about their career opportunities - particularly how to leverage their legal education.

Companies want to hire students out of law school, but not necessarily as ‘lawyers’,” said Chris. Rather, they want someone with a law degree to be a finance controller, or manage contracts, or work in business development, help with policy, work in human resources, etc.  These are all roles that benefit greatly from a law degree, but that aren’t marketed as a ‘legal role’ by the company. The secret is to be agile and flexible in matching skills and interests to jobs, and don’t be constrained to look for traditional legal roles.

For students who do want to work in a traditional legal role, it is important to think of their career as a process.

“It’s reasonable to expect that a job working on supply chain and procurement contracts is going to open up doors to more traditional business law opportunities,” said Chris. “Working in human resources is going to present opportunities in employment law.  The challenge for students is to think about the long term.  Know that the world is changing so fast that the best thing we can do is to constantly acquire new skills, remain aware of market and business trends, engage in life-long learning and always be building both industry and professional networks.”

Chris praised the Centre for Legal Innovation for being one of several organizations helping to identify macro trends in the legal profession and using that information to help students craft their personal path.

At Santa Clara University (SCU), we have a program called the TechEdge JD, which is designed for students who know they want to practice/work with technology companies,” said Chris.

The program incorporates experiential learning into the program, and encourages an internship at both a traditional law firm and a Silicon Valley technology company.  It’s also rich in networking opportunities, includes a mentorship program, and emphasizes participation in clinical settings, advising businesses and startups on legal issues.  The program attracts students who have higher GPAs and LSAT scores than the school average.  Programs like the TechEdge at SCU provide an experiential learning component throughout the three years of law school that complements the academic program.