Law Schools Need to Adapt to Big Data and Technological Change

Law is experiencing a revolution. Several changes are occurring, but they are all tied to the impact of information and communications technology (ICT), which is altering the nature of law at a fundamental level. This has happened in the past. Before the commercial printing press, for example, law was mostly simple legal treatises and maxims. The complex, massive legal regime of today could only be achieved with steam-driven presses and then computerized word processing.

But, today, ICT takes on a new form: powerful artificial intelligence (AI) that links the law, a type of data, directly to other types of data. Since today’s best AI finds patterns beyond human perception, this change means that AI has a growing capacity to enhance human legal reasoning,  automate some aspects of legal work, and decrease the demand for licensed lawyers, even as the demand for legal services grows.

In response to ICT’s growing capacity, legal education needs to adapt to the changing world and prepare its students accordingly.

The immediate consequences of ICT are new technologies for legal practice. The rise of predictive machines is transforming traditional lawyering. The dawn of the information revolution in law is slowly emerging—but the changes are coming. Artificial intelligence’s influence has been growing since the 1970s, especially for legal search engines and on the business side of the legal practice. For instance, most cases settle out of court now because lawyers can, with growing accuracy, predict the court’s decision. Lawyers have no need to litigate when they know a case has a value of X dollars with Y percent accuracy.

Information and communications technology has also given legal scholars and lawyers new insights into the nature of law and how it interacts with other types of data. Lawyers now understand that information and computation are fundamental to the organization of social systems.

For example, legal workers can now determine how law and the economy interweave and influence each other. In the past, investors might ask how a lawsuit might impact a corporation’s stock price. Today, we might also ask how stock performance influences the outcome of a lawsuit. Surprising patterns exist between law and other social phenomena, like marriage, and physical systems like the environment, too.

Some legal philosophers, like Jurgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, have suggested for many years that law mediates between social norms, like moral beliefs, and social facts. ICT can now find empirical verification for that claim. This means that to an increasing degree, traditional legal problems may have non-legal solutions, and a change in the law might be used to cause a change in some other area, thanks to AI making a connection too subtle for a human mind to detect unassisted. Law’s place in society, our expectations for what it is, and what it can achieve, will change dramatically as the connections are detected and mapped.

Law isn’t the only field changing, either. ICT has affected areas of study from information science and biology to physics and chemistry. Political scientists, economists, and sociologists, too, can better understand social organization thanks to newly available data.

To adjust to this new reality, legal education should change from training lawyers as narrowly trained technicians with a few skills to training them as broadly educated, skills-rich experts who work in a variety of settings. For example, in the corporate world, since legal issues are increasingly viewed as complex problems in information structure and systemic organization, the problems that lawyers face will be managed better by teams of experts comprising lawyers, financial and marketing experts, accountants, and data engineers. The new role for the lawyer is to find a place in an environment where legal expertise is only one component of many.

The new role for the lawyer is to find a place in an environment where legal expertise is only one component of many.

To prepare future lawyers, their education needs to be more well-rounded. Philosophy and the humanities should be a central part of a well-designed law school curriculum because lawyers need to understand the deeper changes occurring in society and to be able to design plans for achieving good ends for their clients—and for the communities in which they live. The emerging need is for lawyers who understand that law is a form of responsible social planning shaped by social forces—and is also guided by moral reflection and moral reasoning. If legal education does not respond to this need, the legal profession will become increasingly irrelevant.

For example, there is a growing recognition that artificial intelligence can reify many types of bias, such as racial bias. But, the bias built into AI can also be political. A real threat is that we are deploying systems in law and government policy that reduces all human goals to economic ones. Would you want the AI that is aiding the Environmental Protection Agency in decision-making to be optimized for maximum economic output? Or the AI determining which patient receives a kidney transplant? Given the pervasiveness of AI, lawyers must respond to this sort of bias with sound criticism and effective strategies.

To educate lawyers to confront ideological bias, law schools need to reconnect with their historical roots that viewed teaching good citizenship and a concern for the common good as fundamental to education. At least some of the religiously affiliated law schools never lost that mission. They could serve as intellectual centers for religious critiques of the social and political ethics of the emerging AI society.

Without a broader education in philosophy and the humanities, the law threatens to become focused on money and profit. This materialist focus is oppressive in its own right because it denies the intrinsic human desire for transcendence or a divine good. Legal education, then, needs to prepare its students to respond to changes in society driven by ICT.

Kevin Lee is a law professor at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.