Training lawyers for a digital world

How University of Oxford academics from Computer Science and Law are helping train the lawyers of tomorrow via OLTEP (the Oxford Lawtech Education Programme).

The working world must change quickly to keep pace with the digital revolution, and English law is no exception. But meshing complex legal principles with digital thinking is no easy feat. Enter the Oxford LawTech Education Programme (OLTEP), a training programme for lawyers that brings together the disciplines of Law and Computer Science, unlocking new possibilities for the law practice of the future.

“We want to make people bilingual”

The 2018 (check date) project “Unlocking the Potential of Artificial Intelligence for English Law”, led by Professor John Armour, provided the underpinning research for OLTEP’s inception. The findings led to the development of a new module for Computer Science and Law students at the University of Oxford, designed to help students from both disciplines gain a deeper understanding of how the two areas can work together more effectively.

The module’s success with students led to the creation of OLTEP – a learning resource to train practising lawyers using the same interdisciplinary principles. The OLTEP project is led by Professor Tom Melham (Computer Science), Professor Rebecca Williams (Law) and Dr Václav Janeček (Law).

Professor Williams says: “We want to make people bilingual – so that a lawyer can sit down with a computer scientist, and have an intelligent conversation. They would know what questions to ask, understand the terminology, the metrics used, the different systems. It’s about having interdisciplinary conversations in an intelligent and productive way.”

“We’re keen to collaborate – it’s the only way we’ll move forwards”

The project team collaborated extensively with two key external partners to identify and shape the course to the unique needs of practising law.

The Government Legal Department (GLD) is the largest legal department in the country, responsible for developing, implementing and advising on government policies and decisions. Ruth Ward, Director of Knowledge, had presented at the launch conference for “Unlocking…” in her previous private sector role. She was keen to explore carrying the connection forwards at the GLD.

“I was conscious that AI was becoming part of the legal practice knowledge that all our lawyers needed,” says Ruth. “We were therefore keen to develop and pilot an introductory programme that would be relevant and useful for all government lawyers. AI’s not an easy topic to cover at an introductory level, not least because both lawyers and technologists tend to be very wedded to their words and what they mean. We could see that the team at Oxford had, by developing and running their own course internally, overcome those barriers to be able to present relevant technology and legal concepts and implications in a clear and understandable way. This expert multidisciplinary approach definitely contributed to the success of our initial partnership with Oxford.”

The OLTEP team also worked closely with leading law firm Slaughter and May, a previous partner on “Unlocking…”.

“There has always been a real synergy between the questions they are asking and what we are working on,” says Jane Stewart, Head of Knowledge and Innovation at Slaughter and May, “and the professionalism of the team is absolutely outstanding. It makes working together a really productive and pleasurable experience. Innovation in legal services is for the good of the industry as a whole. So we’re really keen to collaborate – it’s the only way we're going to move forwards.”

“We want people to be confident users”

Both organisations were involved in a series of interviews to identify training needs and shape the module content accordingly. Developing an effective means of delivery was also key – teaching was initially planned in-person but switched to remote, asynchronous delivery as a result of the pandemic. This ultimately turned out to be a positive move, leading to the creation of a training resource that can now be accessed and scaled more easily.

“Our course comes with exercises, reading, discussion, Q&As. It’s real education. We expect people to know something permanently when they’ve finished,” says Professor Melham. “I don’t think we would have achieved all that with in-person delivery.”

Having perfected the initial introductory modules, OLTEP is now focusing on developing intermediate modules to suit industry needs. The team continues to work with the GLD and Slaughter & May, and is now reaching out to other law firms that are looking to upskill.

“To effect change in the sector, we want people to be confident users,” says Dr Janeček. “Our aim is to train at least 20% of practising lawyers.”

With just under 40% of all firms approached taking up the offer of the pilot scheme and accreditation from the Solicitors Regulation Authority on the horizon, the team look to be well on track to reaching their goal.

Find out more about OLTEP at https://www.oltep.ox.ac.uk/