Vermont law professor Oliver Goodenough has become a nationally known critic of business-as-usual among American law schools. Among his concerns: seeing so many law schools that are unwilling to move away from a century-old teaching methodology — one that’s been entrenched for so long that its practitioners have no sense that it was, in its origins, a radical innovation in itself.
In an editorial for The Huffington Post, Oliver wrote, “The elaborated case method as we have come to know it was made possible by technological innovation — the spread of cheap, mechanized printing in the second half of the 19th century. The preoccupation with textual analysis that is the hallmark of the case method needed easy access to large blocks of text to thrive. The information, communication, and processing innovations that we bundle under the ‘digital’ label are, like cheap printing before it, creating a wealth of new possibilities for how we can define, deliver, and teach that set of rules and enforcement mechanisms we call law.”
Those possibilities are especially real, Oliver believes, at Vermont Law School — a school with a history of being out ahead of other places, with a reputation for enterprising students and an enterprising orientation, a place unafraid of change. As the head of the VLS Center for Legal Innovation, Goodenough is exploring one of the critical aspects of the changing legal landscape, the digital frontier. His students research and grapple with questions of automation, efficiency, where the law needs a human touch and where it can more effectively be handled virtually, by machines.
The cutting-edge inquiry and training have deep implications for social justice. Half of all low-income Americans are turned away from requested legal help. Because of cost, 80 percent of low-income Americans don’t even seek legal help when they need it. Digitizing and automating parts of the law can make legal services cheaper and easier to access, having a huge positive impact on an underserved part of our society.
There’s an equally important practical reason for pushing the ways in which Vermont Law School students are educated and trained. It has to do with a different changing landscape, the one of declining national law school applications and the prevailing “wisdom” that law is no longer an attractive career path for talented young people. As Oliver tells prospective applicants, “Look. Law is not going away. Lawyers are not going away. Is there a restructuring going on? The answer is of course. But if you are able train yourself into what that re-structuring means and will require, you’ll be in huge demand. The technology piece fits right in... How do we teach people to be the thing that will be hirable and necessary, rather than the thing that was needed 15 years ago? We’re trying to anticipate exactly that requirement.”