Technology and continuing legal education

August 1st, 2019
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Technology has revolutionised access to education, with online learning transforming the way people learn new skills and share knowledge. It is particularly exciting to see the impact of this in developing countries like South Africa (SA). Many of our top educational institutions are moving into this arena with relevant and top-quality content. We are also seeing a growing uptake of e-learning among people of all age groups, not just millennials.

However, the traditionally cautious legal profession has been slower to adapt. This poses a challenge for busy (and ambitious) legal practitioners who are looking for convenient access to continuous professional development (CPD). While leading university law departments offer continuing legal education for legal practitioners, not much is available entirely online. In most instances, seminars and workshops, as well as short courses, may be supported by online platforms, but physical participation on site is still a requirement.

This has to change. Not only because legal practitioners need more flexibility in how they continue their education, but also because professional development should not be restricted to cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and Lusaka. The legal profession needs affordable skills training, which will be  available to all legal practitioners across Africa, regardless of where they are.

After proposing a mandatory professional development programme for attorneys in 2010, the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 introduced – for the first time in ss 3, 5 and 6 – the idea that continuing legal education is necessary and should be part of the revised framework for the legal profession.

This means that mandatory CPD is on its way for all legal practitioners in SA; and both law educators and legal practitioners need to be prepared. Educators can learn from the methodologies already established by our counterparts in countries like the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada. But, even more vital is to take account of local trends in e-learning and blended learning – a combination of online and face to face courses, short courses, online learning modules and interactive forums, seminars and conferences.

Online learning offers the convenience of mobility (if using a device) and the ability to plan your time. Online systems enable users to create accounts, purchase or acquire content when it is free, and record their time online, including modules completed. Where modules have been accredited and allocated CPD points, the points can be recorded in a private facility, accessible at any time as evidence of compliance with the regime that is put in place.

Younger legal practitioners are likely to take to online learning more easily than their older counterparts, but the benefits are the same. Accessing content from multiple sources in one place means –

  • a wider world view;
  • insights into alternative approaches to problems;
  • the ability to increase the emotional intelligence that many professionals do not have time to acquire but really need; and
  • it will enable senior management to more easily mentor and coach junior staff through a selection of online tools.

Technology is even changing the way legal practitioners might work in the future. Artificial intelligence already offers basic drafting templates, trial preparation packages and answers to frequently asked questions. It may not be the most appropriate way to deal with legal problems, but it is already in use. Software developers are creating more tools to benefit lawyers all the time. In the UK, discovery of documents takes place through a standardised set of software protocols, which can eliminate duplication of documents and identify the most recent version of contracts (and previous versions, where there may be a dispute).

The legal profession should aim at driving this vital transformation with new technology platforms for continuing legal education. Recognising that time is money in this profession, accredited and convenient online short courses, as well as resources and discussion forums to support collaborative learning should be established.

Strategic partnerships should be built with academic institutions, leading law firms, corporate legal departments and public sector stakeholders to ensure best practice in all aspects of legal education.

The potential impact of such a resource on socio-economic advancement for all nations is incredibly inspiring, but it cannot be done without embracing technology.

Kerron Edmunson BA LLB (Wits) is a legal practitioner at Kerron Edmunson Inc in Johannesburg. Ms Edmunson is also a legal consultant at Clearlaw.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2019 (Aug) DR 36.