Features: Zooming into the Future

Through preparation and innovation, the Boyd Law School community overcame pandemic-induced challenges and put graduates in position to succeed upon entering the legal profession’s new virtual reality

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

By Steve Bornfeld

Picture this phrase: “Boot Camp.”

What images does the brain conjure?

Pushups … or logins? Physical stress … or technological tests? Marching in line … or learning online?

You picked the latter each time? Nailed it, cadet. Now count off, one-two, count off, three-four… 

“We had more than a hundred law students go through this boot camp voluntarily for no credit. That’s a good chunk of our entire law school,” says Joe Regalia, associate professor of law at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law—but think of him as the world’s jolliest drill sergeant who was charged with creating the school’s Virtual Lawyering Boot Camp in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Boot Camp” is an evocative title for a program unfolding entirely behind keyboards, in which the blood, sweat, and tears are written in coding, passwords, and links. 

“What I heard back from some students [who attended the camp] is they were able to get [jobs] they wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise—that after graduation they hit the ground running with their employers,” Regalia says. “It was a great example of the incredible things we can accomplish when we’re forced to do things differently. Why weren’t all law schools doing this all summer? 

“Obviously, this is a horrible time, but this is a silver lining in my mind. I’m passionate about it, that’s for sure.”

 

In a world turned inside-out and tied up in knots by a pandemic, Regalia’s techie troops are among those manning the front lines of the law school’s swift, strong response when so much of daily life—from schools to businesses to interpersonal relationships—have relocated from the actual to the virtual.

Life is online like never before. 

We’ll get back to boot camp. But first let’s take a pandemic-world overview of the law school’s techno embrace. 

“When I teach students about tech, it’s not about how to use it, where to click, how to log in. It’s to teach them that the tools are available and [about] the method or process for using them to provide a good outcome for your client,” says Lori D. Johnson, associate professor at the Boyd School of Law. 

Johnson’s tech-savvy is manifested in her recent article, “Navigating Technology Competence in Transactional Practice,” published in the Villanova Law Review just before the COVID-19 pandemic swamped the globe like a viral tsunami, making her analysis a must-read for academics. 

“Our students have always used LexisNexis and Westlaw and those legal search engines to perform their research in our classroom,” says Johnson, also noting basic tools most of us know, such as Microsoft Word and Excel. “But there are a variety of advanced legal writing tools out there, some of which I highlight in the article. These include document design tools and, particularly, artificial intelligence tools in research.”

Benefits? Numerous. Here’s one:

“In the article I cite a study that showed how much time attorneys spend grappling with technology,” Johnson says. “If attorneys were better taught and better equipped on that front before beginning their careers, they could save a lot of time that could be used to expand the reach of their legal services. If they had an extra hour, could they do more pro bono work for clients in need?”

Johnson’s article also devotes significant attention to Comment 8 to the American Bar Association’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 (outlining a lawyer’s requisite competence). It was amended in 2012 to require attorneys to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” In the ensuing years, as technology has ramped up, Comment 8 has drawn increased debate about its rather vague parameters. 

The State Bar of Nevada is not among the 38 states that have adopted Comment 8, though all states can consult it for guidance. Johnson has a few thoughts on that. 

“It’s an important indicator that the ABA has determined that the ability to use relevant technology is a component of an attorney’s competence to ethically represent their client,” she says. “The passage of Comment 8 started a sea change in the legal profession in terms of, ‘What do I need to know?’”

In addition to spurring differing opinions on how to determine a baseline of technological competence that attorneys are required to have to serve clients, Comment 8 magnified the importance of teaching next-gen law students about tech tools. 

Then, of course, it became imperative during the pandemic. But all was not equal in the tech-teaching realm.

“I found there is very little guidance for lawyers who do transactional lawyering, corporate and real estate law, which is what I practice,” Johnson says. Tech assistance is much more available for courtroom litigators, she notes, even though a large proportion of lawyers deal with transactions that take place outside of a courtroom. 

The Boyd School of Law has taken high-tech steps to address the issue—for students and professors alike. “So many of us have now been forced to become more creative in how we teach, encouraging all of our faculty to think about our delivery of content to students,” Johnson says. “All of our students are learning remotely, and everybody is getting onboard with it.”

Tools being deployed include the artificial intelligence-incorporating “Ravel Law,” a legal research, analytics, and visualization platform that allows students to mine published case opinions to gain legal insights and build arguments. 

“[Ravel Law] uses a graphical view to perform legal research,” Johnson says. “And since I no longer have my whiteboard, it helps me show students graphically some connections between the law, which we can pull up online.” 

As a teacher of legal research and writing, Johnson helps students develop effective electronic communication skills, emphasizing the level of formality that clients, colleagues, and judges expect.

“We have students who have come of age in the time of texting and Twitter and who maybe are not as comfortable putting together more of a formal, professional, polished email,” she adds.

Additional tools Johnson favors include “Contract Catch,” a subscription service for uploading contract drafts; applying proprietary rules; flagging errors, legal inconsistencies and troublesome language; and suggesting alternative avenues of research. A related program, “Brief Catch,” accomplishes the same for legal briefs.

But these services aren’t exactly cheap.

“Not all students will have access to those,” Johnson says. “So I try to make students aware of the free and low-cost legal tools available so they can meet their ethical obligation to be technologically competent.”

 

Meeting them is great. Exceeding them is even greater. Enter boot camp commander Regalia. Even before implementing the much-needed summer program, he saw the Boyd School of Law as a perfect place to bring his passion for technological innovations in a field that has been slow to adapt. 

“Courts and judges, for the most part, never wanted to use technology. Also, law firms use old tools,” Regalia says. “And that’s a United States thing. If you look at other countries like China, they were conducting court proceedings online long before the pandemic. So [American law schools] went into the pandemic kind of behind the 8-ball. 

“The schools that really rose to the task were the handful like Boyd that were ready for it and were innovative. We have several advantages that allowed us to really use [the pandemic] as an opportunity to jump ahead and give our students more technological skills, in spite of some [logistical] challenges.”

One such advantage: Being relatively young, Regalia says, the law school’s practices were not so entrenched and resistant to change. Also, the school already had online training programs in the works before the pandemic.

“UNLV embraces change,” Regalia says. “Everyone here is open to doing things in new ways, and that attitude is why we were able to handle this better than most law schools.

“I’ve seen so many of our professors using more practical exercises to try to make up for the fact that they can’t be there in person—doing things like using virtual breakout rooms with teams of law students working on projects and doing simulations. And it’s so easy to use Zoom to do oral arguments.”

Also advantageous is the access students have to walking, talking legal wisdom. “Thanks to technology,” Regalia says, “we’re able to harness folks from outside of the state and even across the world to teach our students, because they don’t have to travel.”

During his classes’ oral argument exercises—one of the semester milestones for his students—Regalia attempted to find local attorneys who could squeeze into their schedules a little time to share some virtual knowledge with students. Also last spring via videoconference, about 30 judges and attorneys joined his students from throughout the U.S., providing valuable feedback and forging relationships with the up-and-coming lawyers.

And then there was boot camp.

“We were running a pilot program that I was directing with some of our first-year students to create apps to help Nevadans represent themselves in court … by preparing documents for themselves,” Regalia recalls.

When the pandemic exploded, Regalia conferred with the law school’s leadership and fellow faculty. “I said, ‘With everything becoming virtual for our students, and with legal employers not able to afford to train their law students and graduates, we could do so much good if we could put together a program with two main goals.”

Goal No. 1: Present students with new technology tools so they could do what law students traditionally did in the past to get experience, even if they couldn’t do it in person. Goal No. 2: By giving students those tools, law firms, government groups, and other potential employers wouldn’t have to use their own time and resources to train Boyd graduates.

Augmented with ideas Regalia solicited from attorneys and judges from across the country, the three-week “camp” launched in May. It was a concentrated cannon shot of tech learning that blended video and live training sessions. 

Among the visiting instructors: Judge Brenda Weksler of Nevada U.S. District Court; Chris Brown, CEO of Venture Legal (Kansas City, Missouri); Cheryl A. Grames, partner with Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith; Dorna Moini, founder/CEO of legal tech company Documate (Los Angeles); Stephanie J. Glantz, litigation attorney at Bailey Kennedy LLP; and Jordan Gardner, a Boyd Law School graduate who is the cofounder and CEO of Law Student Connect (Boise, Idaho).

Because of timing issues, no academic credits were awarded for attending the camp. Still, about a quarter of the school’s student population flocked to it, understanding they not only would be gaining critical knowledge, but also boosting their post-graduation employment prospects. The camp was so successful and informative that Regalia plans to do it again in 2021.

 

Speaking of real-world experience …

“We started talking to students about remote working in the spring,” says Rachael Adair, Boyd Law School’s assistant dean for career development, who works with a dedicated and experienced team to facilitate student internships, externships, clerkships, and job opportunities.

Like virtually everything else, Adair’s way of working also had to be pandemic-adjusted.

“For our office, it required a lot of coordination between employers and students. The employers had to figure out whether they would continue to have a summer associate or law clerk program for students,” she says. “Among the private law firm employers we regularly work with, 99 percent decided to proceed with some form of a summer associate program. They had to scramble to reframe and reformat it into remote programs, but they made that commitment.”

What about post-pandemic work? 

“There will probably be some hybrid mix scenario,” Adair says. “There are certain employers that probably won’t be open to remote [work]—the courts and some of the government employers will want to return to in-person. But some of the private law firms [likely] will be more flexible regarding remote working.”

Which begs the next question: Will the Boyd School of Law treat these pandemic-induced techno upgrades as mere educational stopgaps and eventually revert to stressing in-person skills over virtual measures? Bet the other way. 

“I’ve already begun to hear that employers are taking a long, hard look into expenses they put into renting office space,” Johnson says. “This pandemic has proven to employers that a work-from-home model can be efficient.”

Narrowing that view to the legal profession, Johnson says it’s likely that certain aspects will return to the in-person model. Hearings and trials, for instance, present more difficulties because evidence must be logged remotely and witnesses cross-examined without their full body language accessible to be interpreted. 

“But from the law office perspective, the justification for having people in the space is not as urgent,” Johnson says. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, socially or psychologically. But from a marketability perspective, it’s definitely a reason for our students to be as technologically skilled as they can be.”

So count on the Boyd School of Law to continue hurtling into the future.

“Our law professors—even though they’re just as experienced and raised in the same atmosphere as all these other law professors at other schools—they handle things so much better,” says Regalia, our boot camp commander/drill sergeant. “They truly embrace online learning.”

Yes, a killer pandemic is wreaking havoc throughout the land, making “as you were” an impossible command. But Sarge Regalia and his Boyd School of Law colleagues have found new, inventive ways to “carry on”—and that’s well worth a hearty salute.