The digital school

It's October again and the beginning of another academic year. This year has seen the explosion of the Internet and the emergence of a new breed of technophile student.

With over 30 colleges now offering either LPC and CPE courses, law departments are being forced to make IT a priority in the fight to attract potential students.

George Middlemist, law librarian at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice which was founded last year to teach the LPC says: "There is a demand for up-to-date IT from our postgraduate students. They have come from universities which have access to email for example and go wild because there is no immediate access to it here."

She adds: "They are simply not used to writing letters by hand."

Most law departments, even if they are not able to fully equip their students with the latest technology, are aware that IT is an important part of their students' training and a way of attracting students to the courses. Melissa Askew, deputy course leader for the CPE course at Leeds Metropolitan University, says she is embarrassed that her department cannot offer more IT facilities. "IT is considered a very important and interesting means of transferring law skills to students. It is also a useful skill that they can offer employers. Unfortunately changes are slow to be implemented but that does not mean we are not making them a priority."

Chris Spencer, senior lecturer and head of IT support at the York branch of the College of Law, is currently overseeing an IT pilot scheme, which includes an introduction to IT for all students and a two-hour face-to-face word processing training session. "Before starting the pilot scheme we set an IT questionnaire for all the students at York. I was amazed to find that out of 650 students 43 per cent of them had computers and 68 per cent of them had expertise in word processing."

The pilot scheme will only be available at the York branch of the College of Law during the first year. As well as having access to on-line PCs students will be introduced to law materials on CD-ROM and on-line information systems such as Lexis and Lawtel; use of a virtual reality legal office and the use of video as an assessment method for interviewing.

Spencer says: "This year IT is a priority for us and we are investing as much money and time into it as we can afford".

Staffordshire and Nottingham University law schools have an advantage over their competitors. They have both recently moved into new purpose built premises of which IT facilities are an integral part.

Staffordshire has its own legal information and technology centre, holding 50 networked PCs with access to Lexis, Lawtel and Link, interactive video facilities for skills training on evidence and advocacy, CD-ROM materials, electronic noticeboards and Internet access.

The use of CD-ROM and on-line legal databases such as Lawtel and Lexis have received a lot of attention from law lecturers who believe that they make the teaching of law more interesting.

Martin Dockray, head of the law department at City University, says CD-ROMs are easier and more productive to use than hard copy text books. City University has access to European legal materials, All England Law Reports, industrial case reports and the official journal of EU directives.

In October 1994 the CTI Law Technology Centre and Law Courseware Consortium at Warwick University released a beta tester's CD-ROM with materials taken from basic undergraduate law courses (contract, criminal and tort).

Although Warwick law department only teaches undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses its law technology centre is an important source of information for anyone in legal education. Its aim is to facilitate the use of computers in legal education by providing information and support for IT-based projects in law and to advise law schools on all IT matters.

The centre publishes its own journal and runs information workshops, as well as providing its own source materials such as IOLIS. It also advises law students on what to look for on the Internet.

Reactions to the Internet are varied among law lecturers. Staffordshire University heavily promotes its use to students as a unique source of relevant national and international legal information.

But Dockray says the Internet is limited. "My broad impression is that the Internet is not a vital source of information for lawyers.

"Students can, however, gain access to some social science citations which can be relevant to law students. There are also a few in-house legal journals such as the Chicago Law Review for the really keen student."

Kevin Calder is an undergraduate law student at Warwick who is doing a dissertation on mooting. He says: "The Internet is becoming more and more useful as a source of legal information and there are a lot of students here using it for research and also putting their own work onto it. I am using it at the moment to get information from US law schools which would otherwise take months to collect."

David Miers, who runs the LPC at Cardiff Law School, encourages his students to send work and communicate via email. He believes IT helps to create an air of professionalism: "Our students are spending a lot of money to do the LPC course and they expect a certain amount of quality. By producing their work on word processors and using electronic research facilities they adopt a sense of pride in their work."

Robert Abbey, head of the LPC at the University of Westminster, recognises that today's student is more computer literate than five years ago but that there are still those who have never used a keyboard before. "Students must leave the LPC course being able to practise law like a modern solicitor. That includes compiling documents and drafting tax and probate forms on screen. Any solicitor's firm that does not use technology effectively will go under so modern solicitors must be trained appropriately."