Teaching Digital Lawyering with a Virtual Firm Simulation

This summer I taught an online course for the University of Dayton School of Law entitled “Unbundling and the Future of Legal Services”. My 14 law students were required to read Richard Susskind’s End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services and chapters from my books on unbundling and virtual law practice, along with podcasts and other digital materials throughout the course.  The course was held completely online three nights a week. The students could see me on live video feed and I also shared my desktop with them to go in and out of different technology applications.

Aside from discussing the materials we were reading, the most practical teaching experience came from the use of our virtual law firm simulation. I created a virtual firm for the class by importing pretend contacts into the Total Attorneys’ platform and creating existing case files for several of those contacts.

Each student in the course was a member of the virtual firm. We assumed general competency in all practice areas and set our jurisdiction as only “licensed” in Ohio. As part of their grade, each student at some point in the course had to put themselves in the shoes of a prospective online client with a legal need. They had to register through the client portal and request legal services online from the firm. This gave them the opportunity to experience the process from the client’s perspective, but also gave us new material as a firm to discuss during class time. I also set up a few ethics or malpractice issues in the cases for the students to handle particular issues we were discussing in the course materials, such as jurisdiction and conflicts checks, UPL, choosing when to unbundle online and when to refer the matter out, etc.

I was impressed with the creativity of many of the students on the virtual firm simulation. (I asked permission prior to posting this if any of them would mind if I shared our learning experience.) One student registered as Harry Potter and uploaded a page of potential legal claims again Voldemort, Ex-Professor Dolores Umbridge, and Bellatrix Lestrange. Another student  provided us with this gem, registering as “Deaf Dennis”:

I am an avid watcher of my favorite show “who wants to be a millionaire”. For years, my friends and family have been pushing me to try out for the show. Finally, after building up enough courage, I called the audition hotline.

….I am deaf. To my surprise the hotline did not include the option that would have allowed me to use the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD). I am extremely upset about this. I would like to sue the show for discrimination and seek to have them use the TDD as well as other systems that would help any person with disabilities.

This led to questions about whether or not we could provide representation for him. What might the benefits of online delivery be for a handicapped individual? Is there a federal claim here? What would be the first steps in responding to this prospective client?

There were several family law, estate planning and small business law cases to discuss. One student pretending to be a client presented this legal matter to the firm:

In a local newspaper article, a journalist wrote a story claiming a year ago I was having an affair on my wife with multiple women. This is
absolutely false!!! I own and operate a large local insurance company,  my reputation and sales is based around me being a family man. Once  people start reading this article it is going to destroy my company. I  need help immediately before this situation gets worse. Thank you.

So we had some fun with the scenarios. We even received an adverse possession case – which I’m not embarrassed to say, I had to rely on my other firm members to help me remember the exact elements of that lovely claim. (Yes, you do in fact forget that one after the bar exam if you don’t practice real property law.)

Not  too surprisingly, many of the pretend client requests were similar to those that I receive from prospective clients in my own virtual practice. As a firm, the students had to evaluate our ability to unbundle for these cases and whether it could be delivered online or if we would need to meet them in person. We created a process for evaluation through the use of the technology: jurisdiction check, run a conflict search on the names of the parties, ask follow-up questions, provide with a worksheet for client intake or refer the individual out and refuse to provide representation. We discussed limited scope engagement agreements, scheduling video conferences, collaborating online with counsel in other states, and other practical aspects of running a virtual firm.

For their final grade, the students completed a law firm business plan that incorporated one or more forms of unbundling legal services and which included the use of technology to deliver services online. They also had to include a limited scope engagement agreement, marketing strategy and social media policy as part of that plan. A couple of the students who were 3Ls indicated that they intend to implement those business plans upon passing the bar. As an adjunct professor, hearing that what you have taught may be put to use in the real-world is about as rewarding as it gets.

This fall I will be teaching an experimental online program for UDSL called the Digital Lawyering Program. It will be run through the school’s career services office as two six-week online sessions. The first will be on the use of technology in law practice and the second will be on lawyers’ use of social media. The material taught in these courses will be practical and expose the students to the technology and ethics issues they will face in practice, but really these are also skills they need to know about now as they start engaging as future lawyers in the online community.

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