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by Bo Kruk
August 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic imposed a dramatic technological learning curve on the world. For many lawyers, working from home and participating in virtual events became commonplace. The justice system followed a similar shift online, its online transformation becoming the topic of many conference panels and workshops. However, the role technology plays inside the legal classroom is as important as its use within the courts. As a TradeLab student in 2020 and a Fellow this past term, I witnessed how our new embrace of technology can break down many of the barriers that limited previous opportunities for students.
Prior to the Pandemic, the occasional use of technology typified the legal classroom. Video conferences required specialized equipment that wasn’t always readily available. One of the most effective ways to take a class outside of the university campus was field trips. As an alumnus of the joint uOttawa-Queen’s University clinic, I can say firsthand that law school field trips are an amazing chance to shift learning from the classroom into the real world. In March 2020, the uOttawa clinic went on a day trip to Kingston, Ontario, to spend the day with our counterparts at Queen’s. This field trip was only possible due to the regional Canadian transportation hub between Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal on the eastern side of the country. If a university from Western Canada had been involved, a field trip would have been almost impossible given logistics. The shift to the online classroom has practically erased any of these concerns. Virtual classrooms have transformed the lecture hall to be as big as any imagination. Technology is the law student’s passport to exciting educational opportunities to engage with experts and other law students from around the world in a dynamic exchange of information.
As a Fellow with TradeLab, I was able to attend classes and work with students in Brazil this spring term. I was one of two Fellows working with the pilot clinic at the University of São Paulo. Since English was not the students’ first language, we helped them with both their legal research and writing in English. While I was physically in Canada, my colleague was physically in Singapore. The students and professors lived throughout Brazil. Guest speakers, experts in their field, were able to give presentations and lead in-depth discussions from Geneva and Canada without any issue. This experience was only possible due to the expanded use of technology brought on by COVID-19.
Today, an internet connection is all a law student needs in order to attend class on the other side of the world. More importantly, deep exchanges did not disappear with the digital shift, they moved online. In my case, when working with my group of students in Brazil, we had many conversations about the differences between legal traditions. These profound conversations likely wouldn’t have occurred in a video conference class prior to the Pandemic.
While technology opened the door to many unique opportunities, the digital shift online included a fundamental requirement: the ability to access the internet. Universal and affordable internet access for all has yet to become a reality. This inequality is often referred to as the Digital Divide. According to statistics from before the Pandemic, only 54.8% of households were connected to the internet in 2019. This meant that roughly half of the households around the world lacked an internet connection to be able to leverage the power of the virtual world. News outlets around the world all ran stories highlighting how schools had to scramble to provide students the needed resources to learn online. Moreover, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 34% of low-income households in the US with broadband internet have had trouble paying for the service because of the impact of COVID-19. Universal internet access is paramount if technology is to empower the lawyers of tomorrow around the world.
In March 2020, within a matter of days, classes that had remained much the same since the era of slates and chalkboard were teleported to the 21st century. This forced evolution highlighted how the existing digital infrastructure can break down the physical barriers of the past—provided students are able to access the necessary resources. The past 18 months have shown the potential of technology to enhance the legal profession as a whole. However, the persisting unequal access to the technology must be a wake-up call to truly empower the lawyers of the future. We must push to bridge the Digital Divide, rather than accepting it as the status quo.
Bo Kruk is a Canadian Lawyer and LLM student at the University of Ottawa. An alumnus of the joint TradeLab clinic between uOttawa and Queen’s University, Bo fell in love with international law when he participated in a weeklong national high school conference on international affairs. He has been passionate about the field ever since. His current research interests focus on the power of technology in the legal centric world of today.