Breaking down barriers: how new technologies are widening access to the legal profession
By Jo-Anne Pugh
Jo-Anne Pugh examines the ability of new technologies to disrupt and open up new paths into the legal profession
While often labelled as a ‘closed shop’, the legal profession has demonstrated a strong commitment in recent years towards addressing the lack of diversity and representation in the industry. Yet while many leading UK law firms ranked highly in the Social Mobility Employer Index 2022, that same report highlights that law firms continue to favour recruiting from Russell Group universities.
In fact, one of the first hurdles that many people from lower socio-economic backgrounds face when attempting to enter the legal profession is accessing high-quality, affordable legal training and education. In addition to the financial barriers, those needing to work to meet course fees or those with caring responsibilities may find the structure and delivery of these courses difficult to navigate.
Despite widespread fears over how new legal technologies are poised to redefine the role of legal professionals, educational technologies are in fact helping to breakdown many of these barriers and open new pathways into the profession for those who might not previously have considered a career in law.
The flexibility of remote learning
Although much has been written about the post-pandemic spread of hybrid working in the legal industry, the disruption sparked a similar rise in online learning, as educational institutions quickly found themselves investing heavily in new e-learning platforms and educational technology solutions.
Education technology has played a part in legal education for some time now. Access to digital learning materials via a virtual learning environment as opposed to hard copy library resources has been a feature for some years – with a wide range of content being offered including video, blogs, vlogs and pre-recorded lectures, allowing learners to access resources wherever, however and whenever they want. This digital first approach is good for employability skills, better reflecting how the modern legal workplace operates.
The pandemic accelerated the concept of having seminars and workshops in a virtual classroom. Post-pandemic, education providers have built up a wealth of experience in delivering these sessions, ensuring they are engaging and collaborative. Now many online or distance learning courses feature digital materials and live online sessions in a virtual classroom, so learners have a peer group and contact facilitated by an expert tutor.
Learning to interact with others via these digital platforms is an important skill, as we now conduct much of our working life in this way. The tangible benefit to having Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) courses delivered in this way is that students can now access high quality programmes without having to constantly travel or relocate, and the flexible pace of learning can bring huge benefits for individuals with work or family responsibilities.
In this way, the advancement in e-learning platforms and the use of virtual classrooms is helping to reduce the many cost barriers that may have stopped many students from pursuing legal training in the past.
Enhanced learning through AI and data analytics
New educational technologies have also opened up tools beyond the imagination of educational institutions a decade ago and have enabled providers to greatly enhance the efficacy of their programmes.
Virtual learning software can collect data on learner performance, engagement and progress. This means training providers can utilise this data to gain immediate and useful insights into learner behaviour, identify areas of improvement and tailor instructions accordingly. Data analytics can help identify struggling learners, track their progress and provide targeted support, resulting in more personalised and effective learning experiences.
Within BPP University, an artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning technology already plays a crucial role in gathering insights based on how students learn and their performance. These sophisticated algorithms continually assess students’ capabilities and areas for development, creating a personalised learning path — meaning students can learn at their own pace, identify gaps in their knowledge and improve their understanding.
This technology has been particularly useful to help prepare students for the SQE 1 assessments, which have a vast syllabus and which candidates need to be able to recall from memory over two grueling days of multiple choice question (MCQ) assessments.
In short, new remote learning technology has allowed new types of students in need of greater flexibility to access SQE training courses, while the advancement in AI and data analytics ensures remote learning is delivered in a personalised way, ensuring that time poor candidates are able to use their precious study time as efficiently as possible.
Positive impact of social media
While strictly speaking not a new technology, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, have equally had a transformative impact on the experiences of SQE students by facilitating the formation of dedicated groups and communities focused on SQE exams.
These communities serve as virtual meeting places where individuals can ask questions, share resources and discuss study techniques. By fostering a sense of camaraderie and support, social media has created an environment that encourages collaboration rather than competition.
Moreover, social media has helped challenge the traditional perception that only a specific ‘type’ of person studies law. By providing a platform for diverse voices to be heard, it has helped break down stereotypes associated with the legal profession.
People from different backgrounds, including those who may have previously felt excluded or underrepresented, can now find representation and role models within these online communities. This inclusivity has not only diversified the student body, but has also broadened the perspectives and experiences shared within these groups.
By actively engaging with these online communities, training providers can gain insights into the experiences and needs of their target audience. They can collect feedback on course materials, teaching methods and overall satisfaction levels. This feedback loop allows training providers to continuously improve their offerings and tailor their courses to better meet the requirements and preferences of aspiring lawyers preparing for the SQE exams.
There is little doubt that technological advancements will lead to a significant shift in the nature of the legal profession as it currently stands. Yet, despite understandable anxieties, the role that recent advancements have played in widening access to legal training demonstrates that there is much we have to gain by embracing change and driving forward positive change in the industry as a whole.
Jo-Anne Pugh is a dean of BPP University Law School