From Floppy Disks to Future Lawyers – ADR and Online Legal Education

By Alice Cooney

In 2000, when I was in high school, my grandmother made the announcement that she was beginning a law degree.  Although she had completed tertiary study later in life, my grandmother had left school at 14 to support her family during the Depression.  Believing in the ethos that you “learn something new every day”, my grandmother made that belief a bit more structured by enrolling in a Bachelor of Laws.

At the time, Facebook did not yet exist, MySpace hadn’t been created and the era of iPhones was another seven years away.  I distinctly remember asking my grandma if she was enjoying her study, and she complained that the course had a requirement that she complete an entire subject wholly online.  For someone who had grown up without computers, you could forgive her for feeling completely out of place in the online world.  Her computer was very good for a game of space invaders, and I can still hear the high pitched whir of the dial up modem logging in, but compared to what I use for my study now, I couldn’t imagine anything more archaic!

She was awarded her Bachelor degree at the age of 75 (due to some last minute recognition of her prior learning) and we had a pseudo graduation ceremony in her hospital room a week before she passed away from a brain tumour.  Now I often think that I would like to tell her about my experiences as a lawyer.  I want to tell her about my court cases, the challenges of self represented litigants and how her recommendation for me to study Latin as a teenager may not have been as ludicrous as I thought!  As I have been working through my Masters of Law, I have been thinking a lot about how studying law has changed and how online dispute resolution (ODR) would not have been a reality for her.

Since completing my law degree, I have worked as a sessional tutor, while working full time, and slowly progressed through my Masters.  The access I have to further study (including being able to attend a class on my phone whilst in a taxi on my way home from the office) means that I can simultaneously fulfil life goals and don’t have to wait until I am 70.  It has also allowed me to experience a change in study, and an alteration in the teaching techniques of legal academics.


Photo: JeongGuHyeok, Creative Commons

As the legal world embraces more forms of alternative dispute resolution, the academic world has looked at options to expand access to education.  One difficulty that I see has been the culture of instantaneous access to information, academics and feedback.  Allowing students to log in and live stream lectures or listen to recorded material at their convenience has been a wonderful asset to the profession.  The study of law is not quick though, the concepts are difficult, fraught with exceptions. Trying to reinforce the importance of the postal acceptance rule in a world where most young people have never sent a letter poses new issues.   There is an unrealistic expectation of students that academics will be available at their whim because there is now direct access like never before.  This instantaneous contact is not a reality with most clients and certainly not the case with accessing the courts.

Developing a skill set in ADR is incredibly important for lawyers, and the majority of legal disputes can and should be settled using these techniques.  The costs alone warrant this but it doesn’t mean the skills and techniques necessary for traditional legal practice should be undervalued.

Having recently completed a few subjects using online platforms, including Online Dispute Resolution (a part of or distinct to alternative dispute resolution depending on who you ask!), I see some challenges.  I followed this up with Copyright X, a subject based on content from Harvard University where all the lectures are actually on YouTube.  As I had previously been an on-campus student for my undergraduate degree, I found it difficult to embrace the online space for learning, despite being connected to my iPhone, iPad or computer at work (and socially!) no matter where I physically am.  I found that some of the classes were spent attempting to figure out how to recreate the classroom space in the digital world.

Just as ADR methods have had to depart from traditional legal processes, the learning space for studying these techniques will need to move away from trying to emulate what happens in a classroom.  Additional issues now seen in the online learning space include the internet dropping out, microphones not working, or unexpected visitors dropping in as experienced during the live interview of BBC correspondent Professor Robert E Kelly.

The issue of developing new ODR techniques, or teaching ADR concepts online, is that it can reinforce a disconnect with the reality of litigation if a proceeding is referred to a court or tribunal.  The delays in court dates and the continuing need to print copies of all materials in triplicate is broadening the divide between the much faster resolution offered by ADR and ODR processes.  Whilst speedy resolution is preferable, that cannot always be the case in law and students need to have well rounded experience to survive in this competitive profession.

In an accidental consequence of ‘keeping it all in the family’, my younger sister is now in her first year of law studies – she is already able to do better with alternative methods of study than I was.  I imagine that my sister, grandmother and I could have had some great legal debates over FaceTime or Skype, particularly about the merits of ADR using online platforms.   If the use of new study methods can change so rapidly, I’m very hopeful that ODR will expand too, lessening the impact on the courts, tribunals and regulatory bodies that are waning under the pressure of the workload.

Alice Cooney is a government solicitor specialising in litigation and dispute resolution. Alice has worked as a university sessional tutor for many years and as a trainer in prosecution techniques.  Alice has particular academic interests in advocacy, sentencing and the use of alternative dispute resolution by government agencies.


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