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The Singapore Law Gazette

Transnationalism, Technology and Tradition: What We Are (And Should Be) Teaching

Many articles out there contemplate what the future of legal education should be. Cool phrases abound, such as being “future-ready”, “business savvy”, “technology literate” and adopting “competency-based learning” or “team-based learning”. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented challenges for the legal profession and the law schools, as well as for the most of humanity.

On 19 May 2020, about 320 members of the Law Society participated in a full day online webinar via Zoom organised by the Law Society on the topic of the role of lawyers in the age of disruption. Panel discussions ranged from how Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and the use of online dispute resolution (ODR) platforms might impact the traditional model of legal service delivery and whether lawyers should have an additional ethical duty to be technologically competent.

As Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) at NUS Law, I see it as my duty to ensure that the academic curriculum at NUS prepares our undergraduate students adequately for legal practice in the four years they spend at university. At the same time, NUS Law should be sufficiently connected with the legal profession so that it continues to offer the appropriate CPD courses for the legal practitioners.

The Law Society’s webinar series in May got me thinking about how NUS Law presently measures up to the expectations of the profession, as well as the expectations of law students and their parents too. Are we on the right track or do we need to fundamentally overhaul our current approach?

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic was perceived by many to be a black swan event of epic proportions. The impact on the legal profession as discussed by the panellists at the webinars is profound. However, its significance for legal education in Singapore may be more overstated than real. Sure, we had to rush to offer all our modules online at very short notice, but we are still teaching the quintessential analytical, writing and oral skills that we have always been doing in face-to-face classroom learning, except we now have to do it more innovatively via Zoom, using breakout rooms and chat rooms. In the last few years, in line with educating the millennial generation, the teaching pedagogy has been shifting from that of an authoritative “sage on the stage” that many of us are accustomed to in the 1980s-90s to one of a more collaborative “guide by the side”.

Over the years I have been keeping track of the academic literature on American legal education.1E.g. Kenneth J. Hirsh & Wayne Miller, ‘Law School Education in the 21st Century: Adding Information Technology Instruction to the Curriculum’ (2004) 12 William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 873; John C. Coates IV, Jess M. Fried & Kathryn E. Spier, ‘What Courses Should Law Students Take? Lessons from Harvard’s BigLaw Survey’ (2015) 64 Journal of Legal Education 443; Sophie M. Sparrow, ‘Teaching and Assessing Soft Skills’ (2018) 67 Journal of Legal Education 553; Rosa Kim, ‘Globalizing the Law Curriculum for Twenty-First-Century Lawyering’ (2018) 67 Journal of Legal Education 905; Melissa H. Weresh, ‘Assessment, Collaboration, and Empowerment: Team-Based Learning’ (2019) 68 Journal of Legal Education 303. Granted that teaching older graduate students in a JD programme can be very different from teaching 18- to 24-year-old undergraduates in a LLB programme in Singapore, I believe that many of the observations on skills pedagogy and content learning are nonetheless relevant to Singapore and to NUS Law.

I think the “3T” paradigm of transnationalism, technology and tradition has stood us in good stead and will continue to be the guiding beacon as we negotiate the terrain of the COVID-19 “new normal”.

Transnationalism

Yes, the legal practice in Singapore does not exist in an insulated bubble. While being competent in Singapore law, lawyers also need to understand – at least, have a basic knowledge of – how the law in other jurisdictions work. The Chief Justice has often exhorted the importance of transnational legal practice to Singapore, and for law schools in Singapore to teach subjects that prepare law graduates well for such practice.

In his Opening of Legal Year speech in January 2018, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon observed that the trajectory of the growing internationalisation of legal practice will continue for the foreseeable future. In his Opening of Legal Year speech in January 2020, he again emphasised that the undergraduate law syllabus in Singapore needs to focus on key growth areas, such as cross-border insolvency, international arbitration, e-commerce and financial services, and to enhance the teaching of practical skills. Rosa Kim has also written about globalising the law curriculum in American law schools if the law schools there are truly committed to preparing their students to practise competently in the current market.2Rosa Kim, ‘Globalizing the Law Curriculum for Twenty-First-Century Lawyering’ (2018) 67 Journal of Legal Education 905, 910. The Dean of NUS Law Professor Simon Chesterman similarly has written about this global paradigm over a decade ago.3Simon Chesterman, ‘The Evolution of Legal Education: Internationalization, Transnationalization, Globalization’ (2009) 10 German Law Journal 877.

Challenges abound for the Singapore-trained lawyer to negotiate civil law jurisdictions and other ASEAN/Asian jurisdictions if all they learn at local law schools is English and Singaporean law. Sending a small number of students on a semester-long exchange to European and Chinese universities does not create a critical mass of graduates with a basic knowledge of civil law. At NUS Law, we recognised this more than half a decade ago, and possibly to the chagrin of students back then, made it compulsory for all undergraduates to read at least one elective module designated as “Civil Law”, in addition to the compulsory second-year module Legal Systems of Asia. Today, we have designed a module Principles of Civil Law: Law of Obligations & Property which is offered twice a year. Taught by Christian Hofmann, this course builds on the compulsory undergraduate modules in torts, contract and property law, and introduces students to the civil law approach to these important core areas. We are also complementing these offerings by faculty members (e.g. Gary Bell (Indonesian Law), Chen Weitseng (Law, Institutions & Business in Greater China)) with intensive modules by visiting professors, such as Cui Guobin from Tsinghua (Chinese Intellectual Property Law), Munin Pongsapan (Comparative Civil Law: Thai Contract Law) and Gu Weixia from HKU (Arbitration & Dispute Resolution in China). Our undergraduates are benefitting from the ability to read modules in the LLM in International Arbitration & Dispute Resolution (IADR) programme. We have partnered with the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) for an elective taught by visiting lecturers from the Board of Directors, Court of Arbitration and Secretariat of the SIAC. Each year, we tap the expertise of renowned practitioners such as Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler and Bernard Hanotiau and other adjuncts to offer a wide range of IADR electives. We are constantly on the lookout to increase on the course offerings in these areas.

Technology

The inescapable reality of the future is one that is inextricably intertwined with technology. This is relevant to both the practice and the content of law. Effective lawyering means knowledge of and skills relevant to “law and technology”. This can mean the use of technology in legal practice (sometimes referred to as “tech in law”), such as understanding coding, electronic discovery, executing blockchain transactions, practice management (that includes document, customer and case management), data mining and analysis. The jury is still out on whether we should make coding/programming skills compulsory in our LLB curriculum, but students can definitely enrol in these modules at the NUS School of Computing should they desire to pursue a legal-technology-related career.

Technological advances also present specific challenges to current legal doctrines in many areas of law. For instance, is a work created by artificial intelligence capable of attracting copyright protection, who is responsible for injuries caused by autonomous vehicles, and how should cryptoassets be treated under present regimes of regulation of ownership and transfer of property. Under the LLM (Intellectual Property & Technology Law) programme and together with the efforts of the newly established Centre for Technology, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & the Law (TRAIL), we have stepped up our offerings in both the law curriculum and in the CPD seminars available to the legal profession. NUS Law generally offers more technology-related modules in the form of module electives compared to other law schools in the UK and Asia, and is comparable to the offerings at top law schools in Australia and the United States. Over half of each LLB cohort have read at least one “law and technology” elective. Our modules in IT Law, Biotechnology Law, Privacy & Data Protection Law, and Artificial Intelligence, Information Science & Law are very popular with our students, and we are certainly looking for more collaborations with industry partners.

Tradition

Mindsets have changed, but the traditional skills needed for one to be an effective lawyer have not changed. It’s just that more new skills in the information age to be an effective lawyer are required in addition to the core skills such as verbal and written communication skills, creative problem solving, ability to do good research and analyse complex issues, teamwork, and commercial awareness. In their first year at NUS Law, undergraduates are put through a rigorous 72-hour compulsory module Legal Analysis, Research & Communication to hone these traditional skills which include a moot at the end of the year. In other compulsory and elective modules, they are able to work in teams, do independent research, advise clients in clinical programmes, and participate in international moots. While some law schools mandate accounting, economics or statistics in the undergraduate curriculum, at NUS Law, we give students the option to read three unrestricted electives from any non-law faculty, and even up to six electives if they wish to declare a non-law minor.

So the “new tradition” at NUS Law is to encourage students to read modules in computer science, information systems, business analytics, new media, economics and accounting according to their personal interest and intended areas of professional legal practice. We trust that this flexibility, together with more prescriptive Double Degree Programmes,4The Double Degree Programmes are Law and Business Administration, Law and Economics, Law and Life Sciences, Law and Liberal Arts (with Yale-NUS College), and Law and Public Policy (with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy). will serve our students and the profession well in the years ahead. On clinical skills front, we have been expanding our clinical programme with institutional partners and law firms pre-COVID-19 pandemic. This year we already have in place clinics and externships in International Economic Law and International Commodity Trading Law, as well as with the State Courts, Attorney-General’s Chambers and Ministry of Law, which all count for credit toward the LLB degree. A survey conducted by Harvard Law School professors5John C. Coates IV, Jess M. Fried & Kathryn E. Spier, ‘What Courses Should Law Students Take? Lessons from Harvard’s BigLaw Survey’ (2015) 64 Journal of Legal Education 443. found that American employers thought that Accounting & Financial Reporting and Corporate Finance courses were the most important business methods courses. They also listed accounting/financial statement analysis and teamwork as the most important skills. These results suggest that law firms value softer skills and institutional knowledge as well as rigorous analytical skills. I think it is timely for us in Singapore to do a similar survey with the legal profession here, and the results will be most useful for the local law schools to fine-tune their curriculum in the years ahead.

In conclusion, while the COVID-19 pandemic is arguably a black swan event with catastrophic global consequences, I think NUS Law, with its eye firmly on the 3T compass, is in a good position to steer ahead calmly, competently and confidently. It would be nice to have a few more partners on this journey!

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.E.g. Kenneth J. Hirsh & Wayne Miller, ‘Law School Education in the 21st Century: Adding Information Technology Instruction to the Curriculum’ (2004) 12 William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 873; John C. Coates IV, Jess M. Fried & Kathryn E. Spier, ‘What Courses Should Law Students Take? Lessons from Harvard’s BigLaw Survey’ (2015) 64 Journal of Legal Education 443; Sophie M. Sparrow, ‘Teaching and Assessing Soft Skills’ (2018) 67 Journal of Legal Education 553; Rosa Kim, ‘Globalizing the Law Curriculum for Twenty-First-Century Lawyering’ (2018) 67 Journal of Legal Education 905; Melissa H. Weresh, ‘Assessment, Collaboration, and Empowerment: Team-Based Learning’ (2019) 68 Journal of Legal Education 303.
2.Rosa Kim, ‘Globalizing the Law Curriculum for Twenty-First-Century Lawyering’ (2018) 67 Journal of Legal Education 905, 910.
3.Simon Chesterman, ‘The Evolution of Legal Education: Internationalization, Transnationalization, Globalization’ (2009) 10 German Law Journal 877.
4.The Double Degree Programmes are Law and Business Administration, Law and Economics, Law and Life Sciences, Law and Liberal Arts (with Yale-NUS College), and Law and Public Policy (with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy).
5.John C. Coates IV, Jess M. Fried & Kathryn E. Spier, ‘What Courses Should Law Students Take? Lessons from Harvard’s BigLaw Survey’ (2015) 64 Journal of Legal Education 443.

David Tan is Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) (since 2015) and Deputy Director of the Centre for Technology, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & the Law at NUS Law. The views expressed in this article are his personal views.