Vermont Law: Developing Curriculum that Marries Aspects of Law, Technology & Innovation

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In Thomson Reuters’ examination of methods that law schools can use to help their students become more “practice ready,” we identified law school faculty already integrating practice-ready skills into their curriculums as well as legal organizations helping new associates connect theory to practice. In the following series of profiles, we explore how these approaches are shaping law students and law firms.

“‘Skills’ has always been a dirty word, a less noble word, for law school faculty,” said Jeannette Eicks, research professor of law and co-director of Vermont Law School‘s Center for Legal Innovation. “But we need to make sure law students are employable. We do our students and our schools a disservice when they are not.”

Eicks, who taught computer science prior to law, develops skills-based curriculum that also emphasizes the importance of technology to ensure that law students are practice-ready when they graduate. “Technology is important for law students because it’s important in business, and the practice of law is a business,” she said.

Class Inserts

Among the courses Eicks teaches are an e-lawyering class focused on legal innovation, and a practice management course that includes hands-on experience with practice management tools. In addition, she has developed a vast repository of class inserts — special teaching sessions within other courses — to help ensure that students are practice-ready.

She first developed a class insert after the legal innovation and legal technology curriculum she wrote with law professor Oliver Goodenough wasn’t attracting 2Ls and 3Ls. They recognized the need to reach students sooner, so she turned her focus to introducing skills-based work into a contracts course for first-years.

She convinced a contracts professor to give her one class. “I spent an hour and 15 minutes going over the history of document automation and introducing them to the concept of legal efficiency and why it’s important — all in a class insert,” Eicks explained.

Now, Eicks receives requests from colleagues to develop inserts for their courses. “It means the inserts caught on,” she said, adding that it helps students understand legal innovation concepts while tying them to the core material.

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Jeannette Eicks, of Vermont Law School’s Center for Legal Innovation

In family law, for example, she teaches a class insert on social networking. “I talk about how to use it as evidence, how to advise clients on it, how to access a client’s Facebook account history and how to guide a client through the process,” Eicks explained. “We’ll talk about, ‘Can a judge demand a password? What are the arguments to counter that? How do you present social media as evidence to make it look like what it looked like when the client was using the tool?’”

She also teaches a class insert on e-discovery in civil procedure, and an insert on document automation and legal flowcharts for estates courses. For civil procedure, her class insert involves bringing in upper-level students to demonstrate a mock 26(f) conference. She has developed two insert options for constitutional law: one insert is “about information privacy”; while the other insert focuses on the First and Fourth Amendments and issues surrounding disclosure of information breaches.

Legal Apps for Social Justice

Eicks’ curriculum underscores the benefits of “marrying aspects of law and technology and innovation.”

“In some of the classes I’m teaching, we’re building apps,” she added. “We take students’ comprehensive knowledge of law to build an app. They build a functional prototype, and this allows them to try out ideas with stakeholders, get feedback on their user interfaces, and see if they could proceed to offer a DIY law option with their apps.”

In her Legal Apps for Social Justice course, students’ prototypes address a range of legal issues. One student developed an app to help veterans trying to get benefits, another created a DUI app for drivers who are pulled over by police, while another designed an app to help people buying back solar energy credits. “It’s a new way for them to think about the law from a client’s perspective,” Eicks noted. “They’re translating legal knowledge into plain English, and it teaches them skills they need even in a standard law practice.”

Her students needed only three days to master a professional prototyping tool. “They were so excited about the material and the different approach,” she said. “They drove themselves. It’s exactly where you want to be as a professor — they were self-motivated.”

While Eicks’ curriculum and class inserts cover numerous legal issues, they share a common approach to preparing students to practice law. “It’s about knowing enough to ask the right questions of the expert — this is what I stress,” Eicks said. “Those are skills that transcend the technology material, but you have to learn enough to ask intelligent questions of the experts.”

Eicks’ third-year students tell her how valuable her courses have been during their job searches. “The feedback I get is, ‘Your class was my interview. The interviewer wanted to know if I could help with ‘fill-in-the-blank,’” she said.

“The most important thing for me, and another thing I stress with students, is that there’s an untapped market for legal services,” Eicks added. “We need to innovate within the practice of law, apply technology where it’s needed, and scale our services. If there’s an overarching concept in what I’m teaching, that’s what I hope they gain: the idea that there’s hope and there’s opportunity, and it involves using technology.”


For profiles of technology innovators in the legal education field, click here!