When I was studying law I spent a great deal of time thinking “Wow, imagine how much harder this would be if I didn’t have Westlaw / Wikipedia / the internet”. Before everyone had laptops even a simple matter of looking up a case would require a trip to the law library.
Think about all of those times you needed look up a relevant case you hadn’t heard of before. Nothing in depth; let’s just say it was referenced and you wanted to know the basics. Instead of needing to read through a text book, or reading the case in full you can just type “[case name] key facts” to get a quick and dirty explanation. You will probably find out enough to get by but certainly not anything complex. It basically plugs a hole in your knowledge.
Sadly it also got to the stage (for me) where instead of looking up a case in a textbook, I did a quick Google search. Why? Because it was faster and easier. Now don’t get me wrong, I never based by knowledge on an online summary when it came to reading an important case. But I didn’t use the opportunity to greatly expand my own knowledge. Someone 15+ years ago would have needed to read a full section in a text book, or even research the entire case themselves. Therefore learning a ton of new stuff.
So my point is this – for me it was rare to read a case all the way through, as it was for my classmates. I read through the full case a few times but I used a lot of online resources (at least to get the foundations of knowledge in place). Without the internet – just relying on the cases and law textbooks when doing your own research, you’re going to develop some pretty amazing comprehension skills and a far greater understanding of the thinking behind the ratio decidendi of a case.
Alternatively you could argue that all of this technology and information is a good thing. This is because it’s not realistic that every case / legal principle the law student of yesteryear didn’t understand would be researched. They may just ignore the gap in their knowledge because the time spent researching compared to the actual benefit would mean it wouldn’t be worth it.
But humans tend to get used to challenging circumstances, they also get used to situations in which everything is going their way or is too easy. I always remember this bit of research:
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert found that after about three years, amputees and lottery winners have about the same level of happiness, having returned to their natural state of happiness after their respective gains or losses
I believe that this can be applied to a student studying law now, and one studying it 15 years ago. You soon get used to the current work load and way of doing things. I remember when I was doing the GDL, people doing the LLB said how they couldn’t imagine doing all those modules in one semester. It was hard yes – but you get used to it. Likewise students of 15 years ago would find a way to fit all this extra research time into their routine. Have modern students got too used to this easier way of studying law because of the wealth of information (some good, sometimes not so good) at their fingertips?
I believe the best students will always go into further detail when studying the law. So they will pick up similar skills, understanding and knowledge compared to students of the past. But they will also be aware of something perhaps much more powerful – the power of technology. At the end of the day what matters is fully understanding a legal principle. You can read through a case 100 times yet not understand it. If something you find on an online resource suddenly makes the case click, then great.
I always understood the cases very well – but one thing I wish I had done is read through the actually cases fully. To complete my knowledge. It’s like I had a 80% understanding, reading the actual case would have pushed that up to 95%. Yes, it’s time consuming but it’s something you won’t regret doing.
I guess you can phrase this question like an essay question – Do you think technology has helped or hindered the development of legal professionals? Would love to hear your opinions on this – leave a comment! 🙂