“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum. The column below originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue and is reprinted here with permission.
What goes into developing a technology skills course for law students? Are there opportunities to teach these skills in private and government law libraries, as well? Attorneys are tasked with understanding the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, and, according to Susan Catterall, law librarians are in a position to provide that knowledge.
Q: My academic library director oversees IT as well as library operations. I would like to propose a technology course to the curriculum committee—one which might involve co-teaching with members of the IT staff. I’m not talking about Microsoft certification, but my library colleagues and I have seen too many students who don’t know how to create a PDF document or manipulate an Excel spreadsheet. I’m concerned that there will be push back, not only from our overworked IT staff, but also from the faculty because the course will be more of a skills course than a doctrinal course. Do you have any suggestions?
A:Yes, you definitely should propose the course. Technology skills are emerging as critical “practice-ready skills,” in part due to the upsurge in the number of attorneys who have gone solo or who work within small practices. These practitioners are responsible for the equipment and software needed to support the business of law. Today’s attorney needs to familiarize himself or herself with e-filing, e-discovery, cloud computing, and litigation support products, for example. In addition to the regulations that dictate document retention, there are potential privacy and metadata issues affecting the dissemination of information and security issues that may impact attorney-client privilege.
The American Bar Association has recognized the role that technology plays in the practice of law, and, in 2012, its House of Delegates amended Comment 8 to Model Rule 1.1, which addresses attorney competence and strongly encourages attorneys to keep current with relevant technology. Attorneys are tasked with understanding the “benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” By now, at least 13 states have adopted a technology competency rule.
This requirement begs the question of how attorneys are supposed to acquire this knowledge, and that burden seems to be shifting to law schools. If it provides any comfort to you, your school wouldn’t be the first to offer courses focused on technology skills and law office management. Some trailblazers have been offering courses for decades and have honed sophisticated syllabuses. This means that you can tap into the collective experience of those who have gone before you. Your timing is great, and there is so much low-hanging fruit that your major challenge may be one of focus.
Creating a technology skills course can easily become overwhelming. Start by determining the needs of your students. The concerns you previously addressed are similar to those identified by Casey Flaherty, who, as corporate counsel of Kia Motors American, Inc., developed a basic technology competency audit, now referred to as the “Kia Audit.” He found that many lawyers were unable to efficiently use Word, Acrobat, or Excel.
As librarians, we are dedicated to helping each other as well as our clientele. We are able to turn to each other for advice and assistance. In this instance, I turned to Katie Miller, Research & Instructional Technology Librarian at Florida State University’s College of Law Research Center, for advice.
“Our students studying in the library were asking for help with things like creating PDFs or manipulating data in spreadsheets,” Katie told me. “After conducting enough one-on-one trainings in our offices, we decided to try to include some technology topics in our lunchtime workshop series. Now those workshops are being developed into a technology skills course for our students. If there is not support for an entire skills class at your school, start small with some seminars or workshops. Try offering to teach some basic law practice technologies identified by the Kia Audit to clinics or journal students. This would highlight the proactive skills and responsiveness of the library staff.”
Another way in which we librarians shine is in providing our patrons with the tools for self-sufficiency. We don’t just give a man a fish; we teach him to fish. The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center has some great primer tutorials, as well as other resources. Likewise, many local bar associations have similar resources.
You were specifically inquiring about a “for credit” law school class, but there are also opportunities for private and government law librarians. Within firms, the library and IT personnel should work together to provide ongoing instruction to attorneys and staff members. Similarly, government librarians should be proactive in partnering with in-house IT staff members and local bar associations to create training and CLE opportunities. Consider your first effort to be a work in progress, and be willing to evaluate your efforts and build upon them.