“It’s the beginning of our journey”: Uni of Manchester teams up with Freshfields to launch legal tech module

Legal IT Insider speaks to Professor Claire McGourlay, who is driving the inclusion of legal tech at the University of Manchester School of Law, about the new module and other initiatives that put Manchester ahead of many if not most of its UK competitors. 
UK law schools have deservedly come under fire for being slow to incorporate legal technology within their training but The University of Manchester School of Law is making great strides to do just that, including launching a new legal tech and access to justice course in February 2019 in partnership with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Neota Logic.
The new module, which counts towards a law student’s degree, will focus on how to ‘re-imagine the delivery of legal services’, offering students the opportunity to learn how to build smart applications that improve access to justice. This is a tried and tested model that has been in use in the United States at tech-forward law colleges such as Georgetown Law and Chicago-Kent College of Law for some time, as we have flagged in the past.
In Manchester, it is being offered as an optional module for undergraduate law students in their final year and has been made possible by Freshfields’ sponsorship of the software licence and course materials. The module is open to all students – including those studying criminology who are unlikely to pursue a City career.
Speaking to Professor Claire McGourlay, a professor in legal education who is driving forward the legal tech initiative, it is clear that the new module isn’t all that the law school is doing. She told us: “What we’re also doing in October is launching a certificate in legal technology so that the students who don’t get on the new module can take an extracurricular course. We have people coming in from DWF; Freshfields, SYKE; and Radiant Law. Alex Hamilton [founder of Radiant] and Alastair Maiden [founder of SYKE] have been really generous with their time and we are hoping to be able to give them honorary lectureships.” It is possible that this certificate will ultimately itself be turned into a module that counts towards a students degree.
The law school has for around a year now run a legal technology consortium, as part of which Professor McGourlay has been engaging some of the people mentioned above as well as Jonathan Patterson from DWF and the School of Computer Science and Manchester Business School. “It is part of a general discussion to help drive the conversation forward,” she said.
Professor McGourlay has been at Manchester law school since last June, with a brief to help shake up the curriculum and ensure maximum student engagement, with the backing of Professor Toby Seddon, who is head of the law school. She said: “Toby has the vision: he went to Legal Geek two years ago and that became a principal driver to move things forward and we’ve been working on it ever since.”
The law school also last year ran two employability sessions where Skye Law, Radiant Law, Wavelength Law and DLA Piper were among those to talk to students about legal technology. “Freshfields came in and demonstrated some of their AI work and you could see the students faces light up, as mine did,” Professor McGourlay said.
It will be interesting to see what the uptake is like of the new legal tech module because despite early demonstrations of enthusiasm, Professor McGourlay says that students can be surprisingly change averse. It is very early days and while eventually the law school may be open to having other courses sponsored by other law firms, Professor McGourlay says: “It’s just the beginning of our journey and trying to build thing forward.”
BPP College of Law is looking at different ways to incorporate the technology used by law firms – such as their document management system – within students’ daily lives and Professor McGourlay says: “One of things I’d like to see is those things built into our clinic work. I run a miscarriage of justice clinic and we have a legal advice centre with 300 students working there. Those are the kind of opportunities where vendors could help us.”
In a press release published yesterday (5 June), Professor Seddon said: “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Neota Logic and Freshfields on this exciting new course for our undergraduate students. We’re proud that Manchester is leading the way amongst UK universities in introducing legal technology into the LLB curriculum. The world of legal services is changing and law students need to be learning about it.”
Maeve Lavelle, director of education at Neota Logic, EMEA, who Professor McGourlay says is helping to drive forward this Neota-backed initiative across the UK, said: “Legal technology has seen a surge in interest lately, and we don’t see that trend slowing down. Manchester have a robust legal tech pipeline for their students. We’re very excited to be working with them and Freshfields to bring our educational programme to the UK for the first time and give students the opportunity to explore legal careers outside of the traditional path.”
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