Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clinics in the Cloud, the "Technology Question," and Teaching Technological Professionalism

If the law clinic listserv is any indicator, the “technology question” is alive and well in clinics across the country.  Many are using the summer months to do the good and complicated work of integrating new and updated client and document management technologies. In addition to the important (and possibly impossible) question of how to set up a “fail-proof” system, I’d like to suggest a second question:

“How might we use the” technology question” to teach technological professionalism?”

As we pour over the professional responsibility rules, work with our University IT departments, confer with each other on the listserv, and choose our management systems, I hope we won't confine the experience to our departmental meetings and summer objectives. Instead, let’s bring it all to the classroom.

I suggest this for a few reasons.  First, our students will often know more about the technology than we do. The Millennial students in our clinics are digital natives, and for them technology is as natural and necessary as breathing. They are the experts on what shortcuts or workarounds will be most tempting to them.  Second, these responsibilities will sit squarely on their shoulders in short time. Part of becoming a lawyer in today’s digital age is knowing the duties that come along with technology use. Out of nature or necessity, many of today’s students are going out on their own. We can no longer expect them to learn the ins and outs of technological professionalism  from their future employer. Third, while our students are familiar with technology, they often use new applications without thinking twice. Our role is to encourage and model critical thinking in regard to technology and its relationship to our professional responsibility. In essence, it is our job to teach that “second thought.”  We have a great opportunity to address these issues by working out the technology question together  in a transparent and collaborative way.

The process, messy as it is, can be a wonderful teacher. Every semester, I present the “technology question” to my students as if it were brand new….because in many ways, it is.  After providing them with the the applicable rules and corresponding best practice articles, as well as a series of technology hypotheticals I created to tease out some of the more frequent missteps, I ask the students to troubleshoot our current solution.  Where are the holes?  What have we missed? What new technologies or applications will weaken our solution or make it obsolete? How would you change our user agreement? What apps do you think would be helpful to our work? How can we assess new technologies? What will you do in practice?

The conversation often results in enlightening observations, pushback on assumptions, and a slew of new issues to short, it does just what I hope it will do. Our clinic conversations then inform our department’s ongoing conversation with University IT. This ongoing process, as technology shifts and changes, challenges us to remain relevant and informed. Clinics, once again, are in a wonderful position to prepare our students for the real world of legal practice.

(As Warren Binford so kindly pointed out in her post "Clinics in the Cloud," I presented on this process with Pepperdine University's Chief Information Security Officer, Dr. Kim Cary, at the 2012 AALS Clinical Conference. I later developed our work into an article, Millennials, Technology, and Professional Responsibility: Training a New Generation in Technological Professionalism, 37 J. Legal Prof. 199 (2013). The article includes teaching tools and a sample user agreement that I hope others will find helpful and improve upon.)

I’d love to know how others are encouraging technological professionalism. Care to share an idea or two?

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