How Law School IT Challenges Impact Instruction

Law school IT challenges encompass many of the same issues as other K-12 and higher education providers.

Unsurprisingly, law school IT teams confront many of the same challenges as their K-12 and higher education colleagues. High numbers of incoming tickets, a small number of team members, and issues that need resolution “now” can all strain these IT teams’ limited resources. Coupled with the demands of remote learning, the emergence of “hybrid” and even entirely virtual programs post-pandemic, and the increasingly prominent role of technology in legal practice, law school IT teams are poised to play an ever more central role in students’ legal education.

Law schools, however, are unique in many respects. First, perhaps more than any other advanced degree program, a law school education requires high levels of engagement both between students and between students and faculty. Rather than a traditional lecture, many law school classes embrace the “Socratic” method in which a professor uses rapid-fire questioning to test students’ understanding of the material. Rather than merely reciting a case’s facts, reasoning, and holding, the professor uses the Socratic method to apply a case’s logic to novel scenarios.

Because law schools demand a higher level of engagement from their students, they confront unique IT challenges that become more apparent in the remote learning environment. Below, we discuss both the challenges law schools have faced in adapting their programming in the face of the pandemic and other, perhaps less obvious, technology challenges law schools and even law firms face.

As law schools transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, some argue student engagement suffered.

Because traditional law school education demands a high level of student engagement, law schools struggled to transition to remote learning. Many of the hallmarks of in-person legal instruction, such as the Socratic method, the vigorous debate between multiple students and faculty members at once, and of course, networking events with law firms, couldn’t be easily replicated over Zoom or videoconference. While some faculty members got creative by using student break-out rooms, polls, and audio-visual aids, the rapid-firing questioning of traditional legal instruction was slowed down to accommodate the constraints of videoconferencing.

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Perhaps because students didn’t need to be as alert as they had been previously, or because many of their online classes switched from traditional letter grading to pass-fail systems, many faculty claimed student engagement suffered from the transition to remote learning. Students seemed lethargic or uninterested in engaging with their colleagues rather than coming to class ready to engage with the course’s material. Where there used to be volunteers ready to speak in class, professors encountered silent Zoom calls, waiting for someone (anyone) to respond to their questions.

Students, likewise, didn’t feel they were receiving an adequate legal education, particularly given the cost.

For their part, many students who expected a traditional legal education felt blindsided by their new, remote learning experience. Rather than the give-and-take they had seen in popular media and heard about from their more senior law school peers, they encountered staid, slow-moving Zoom classes that didn’t necessarily cause them to push their thinking. Some students, sensing remote learning might compromise instruction, opted to defer admission for a year, while others decided to go full steam ahead.

Given the cost of a legal education, those who did choose to attend began to ask for partial tuition refunds or more generous scholarships to compensate for what they felt was a lackluster academic experience. Without the level of engagement that usually accompanies a legal education, these students didn’t feel motivated to study their course material to the same degree they might have during traditional, in-person instruction. While a small minority of students may have preferred remote learning, most felt the experience failed to deliver the legal education they bargained for after accepting an offer of admission.

In the remote learning environment, both students and faculty worry about their ability to influence administrators’ decision-making.

Without direct, in-person access to school administrators, both students and faculty didn’t feel they had the same level of influence on law school decision-making as they had during traditional instruction. Suppose a new financial aid initiative, curriculum plan, or student fellowship was announced. In that case, students and faculty within the remote learning environment couldn’t walk to the dean’s office to ask about the new policy.

As with classroom instruction, the collaboration between students, faculty, and school administrators could often feel staid or sluggish over Zoom. Rather than trying to deliver the best possible legal education to their students, many administrators simply sought (understandably) to “get by” in the early days of remote learning, hoping that in-person instruction would resume by the next semester.

As with other educational providers, law school IT challenges also include issues of technology equity.

Even if remote learning doesn’t take place on campus, that doesn’t mean it comes cheap. Faced with the prospect of teaching and learning from home for the next several months, both law school students and faculty invested money in outfitting their home offices. From additional monitors and comfortable computer chairs to wireless mouses and keyboards, students and faculty shelled out cash for remote learning technology for which they hadn’t necessarily planned or budgeted.

For some students, spending still more money on their legal education simply wasn’t an option, forcing many to forego the creature comforts that some of their more affluent peers could afford. These challenges underscore the extent to which concerns over device equity—thoroughly discussed in the K-12 context—could also impact the higher education space.

Even after the pandemic, some law schools are considering maintaining remote learning, which comes with costs.

Given the persistence of the pandemic, many law schools are considering offering a remote learning option to students uncomfortable returning to in-person instruction, even with mitigation efforts such as masking and social distancing in place. To successfully provide a remote learning option, law schools will have to invest significant resources into software installation, academic support, content management systems, and, perhaps, marketing.

Moreover, all of these investments will likely require additional personnel beyond the law school’s current support staff. While many support staff members hired before the pandemic supported remote learning during the pandemic’s early days, much of their attention will likely shift back to those students who ultimately return to in-person instruction. The result? There is a potential gap in programming quality between students who attend classes online and those who travel to campus.

IT teams at law schools with “hybrid” programs will experience additional strain.

Likewise, law school IT teams are likely to experience additional strain as they struggle to meet the demands of “hybrid” programs comprised of both in-person and remote students. In addition to daily troubleshooting for in-person learning, such as rebooting faulty projectors and helping instructors log in to their classroom desktops, law school IT teams will also have to contend with a hefty remote learning caseload.

Content management systems might not work properly, or students might not be able to access their classroom’s Zoom link, necessitating the IT team’s intervention. Similarly, professors whose classes include some remote students will likely need assistance setting up Zoom before each class period or uploading classroom recordings to the school’s content management system. As a result, law schools will likely have to invest in additional personnel to meet their IT needs. Without additional support staff able to handle an increasingly high number of tickets, existing law school IT teams will likely fail to deliver the quality of service their schools are used to receiving.

Many of these challenges also extend to law firms, where technology is assuming an increasingly prominent role.

More broadly, once law school students graduate and enter the legal profession, they’ll encounter a field in which technology has come to play an increasingly central role. Algorithms and artificial intelligence platforms can now do some of the tasks that once required hours and hours of a lawyer’s time. As a result, law firms now extensively use in-house IT teams to keep these and other technology-related systems running. These investments, in turn, ultimately improve the law firm’s efficiency, helping it to accomplish more work within a smaller number of hours. Putting aside the pandemic’s impact on legal instruction, the growth of technology use within the legal profession itself will likely necessitate robust IT support over the coming years.

At CTS, we help solve law school IT challenges and support law schools in accomplishing their unique missions.

At CTS, our team has decades of experience in the educational technology space and the technical know-how to help both law schools and law firms meet their most pressing IT challenges. From remote learning and content management systems to cutting-edge project management platforms, our team has fluency in a range of the most commonly used legal IT products. With consistent, high-quality IT support, law schools and law firms can improve outcomes for their students, faculty, and clients. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help your law school or law firm accomplish its unique mission.