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Maynooth rolls out tech module for all law students
Dr David Cowan

23 Sep 2020 / technology Print

Maynooth rolls out tech module for all law students

A cutting edge law and technology module has been rolled out for every Maynooth University undergraduate law student, in a Europe-wide first.

The first lecture will be delivered next Monday with the goal of eventually delivering more technologically articulate law students into the legal world.

The university’s progressive legal department, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, has always embraced innovation, because it is not bound by long traditions, according to lecturer Dr David Cowan, who has designed the compulsory new course.

The module will be delivered to alternate second-year and third-year law students, with built-in evolution to a deeper engagement with law and tech issues.

“This is pioneering work by the department, offering this at undergraduate level,” Dr Cowan says. 

He pays tribute to Professor Michael Doherty, head of the Department of Law at Maynooth, who has been a huge support.

He had the vision to see the importance of this emerging discipline and to back it fully, Dr Cowan says.

The Maynooth syllabus will examine the law of technology, though with a wider focus than IP and the internet.

Thematic approach

It will take a thematic approach to the way in which technology impacts the various areas of the law, such as surveillance in criminal law, remote drone warfare in public international law, and product liability in robotics.

Philosophical concepts, such as whether robots have a legal personality, will also be covered.

Dr Cowan points to the importance of the tech industry to Ireland and the complicated legal questions arising, which adds another layer of interest to the new Maynooth module.

“The law is always trying to catch up with technology so students are thinking more creatively about that relationship, and how we can future-proof regulation,” Dr Cowan says.

Intangible goods

The course will also examine whether existing legal principles can be applied to the technological situation, or whether the law needs to be completely rewritten in a world rooted in data information and other intangible goods, rather than property rights.

“We are moving paradigms,” Dr Cowan observes, and says that mass data surveillance can connect patterns of behaviour and thus manipulate individuals at a granular level.

Practising lawyers regularly tell him that interning students are not sufficiently technologically savvy, Dr Cowan says.

“We want students to be articulate in discussing the relationship between law and technology, and in particular, the disruption of the legal profession through technology,” he says.

Coding

The future for law graduates lies in many different types of legal jobs, rather than simply the practising professions, Dr Cowan believes.

Maynooth students will become familiar with tech tools and learn about coding, with plans to expand this offering in the future.

“Every law student ought to have an idea of what’s involved in coding so that they understand some of the nuts and bolts of technology.

“They don’t necessarily need to know how to build apps, because their job is still going to be to work with the law.

“Some will go into new types of legal jobs and they will benefit more from learning about legal coding,” he says.

Case management tools

The course will also involve practical experience of technology, and the use of case management tools, for example.

Cowan is fully alive to the dangers of automating inefficiencies.

We really need to understand the augmentative nature of technology, if we are not to perpetuate mistakes, Dr Cowan says.

“Even if you are a technophobe, this is good stuff,” he says, pointing to the benefits of an inter-disciplinary approach to both law and technology.

“If we don’t understand the nature of the relationship between people and machines, then we will never get this right,” he says.

Dr Cowan feels strongly that lawyers must get more involved in the development of technology, because technocrats may simply push things for the sake of the advances, whether these are useful to humanity or not.

Product design 

If legal professionals had a better understanding of technology, they could do a lot more in terms of helping product designers bring more useful services to market, he believes.

And if lawyers get involved at the beginning of automation, then the legal issues will be foreseen and resolved.

Legal design needs to weigh up both what technology does, and what people do.

“These technologies have to be integrated with traditional black-letter law as well. It’s not that the law needs to catch up with technology, it’s more dynamic than that.

“If all you do is automate the way we’ve done things in the past, you end up with faster dysfunction than we already have,” Dr Cowan warns.

Flawed processes

Technology that is simply mapped onto flawed human processes will produce automated dysfunction.

“We are going to solve that problem, not just through changing technology but through changing communication, so that we create a legal system that has efficiencies and also keeps the human aspect in the loop,” he continues.

Litigants often end up in court because of emotions, Dr Cowan observes.

Technocratic solution

“If you don’t take that factor into account in redesigning the courts, you will end up with a technocratic solution, which works only when there are no contentious issues involved," he says. 

Machines are not good at handling emotions, and can sometimes create more emotion, such as frustration, he notes.

Ultimately, though, technology can bring access to justice closer to home, and that can only be a good thing, Dr Cowan concludes.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland