Technology, Internet playing bigger role in legal learning, practice
SANTA ROSA — Recent trends in technology have influenced the continuing evolution of both instruction and infrastructure at the Empire College School of Law, with a library that increasingly leans towards digital options and a newly developed course to consider emerging legal questions.
The evolution represents both a long-running movement towards digitization of legal resources and a response to a swell of concerns about privacy and ownership in the realm of social media and other technologies.
“Increasingly, those pretty walls of books — nobody is using them. Everything is on the Internet,” said William Robertson, dean of the law school at Empire.
During the 2012 summer semester, a period when elective courses are concentrated, two new classes were offered: Social Media and Internet Law and Sexual Orientation and the Law. Both were first-time offerings, proposed by professors and developed within the department.
Those electives play a key role in providing opportunities to explore topics outside of the core legal curriculum at Empire, and Mr. Robertson said that the courses are often based on the experiences of professors in their legal practice and represent some of the newest concerns of the profession.
“One of the things that makes Empire so unusual is that all of our faculty are either sitting judges or practicing lawyers,” he said. “In every class we teach, they always bring in the insight from their judgeship or their practice.”
In proposing the new Internet and social media course, Empire Law instructor Heather Bussing said that she hoped to explore a number of questions that have arisen as venues such as Facebook and LinkedIn have become increasingly connected to personal and professional lives.
While the legal issues of social media and the Internet have received an increasing focus in recent years, Ms. Bussing said that she focused on developing a course that would look towards the future in a rapidly changing technology landscape.
“My clients started asking questions like ‘Who owns my contacts?’” said Ms. Bussing, referring to experience in her law practice. “The way our legal system is set up, it’s based on people, places and things. The Internet is all of those things, and none of them at all.”
The 12-week course, which will be offered again this spring, looked at issues such as privacy, copyright, First Amendment protection and cyber bullying, she said.
Yet in teaching the issues related to the Internet, Ms. Bussing said that it was also a helpful tool. While attending a conference, she was able to conduct class through a video conference feature built into the social networking website Google+. Students were also asked to blog about assigned research topics, using a writing style that Ms. Bussing said was an entertaining departure from the advanced legal writing course she also teaches at Empire.
Technology has increasingly played a role in the instruction of all students, including those at the law school, said Roy Hurd, president of Empire College.
“It’s becoming more and more significant — the digitization of education,” said Mr. Hurd.
While hardbound legal texts have continued to be a feature in the school’s law library, the advent of strong digital alternatives saved the school approximately $43,000 in library costs last year, Mr. Robertson said.
Yet despite those advances, the school of law continues to teach classic research skills, noting that future attorneys may not have ready access to the latest databases.
This summer, in light of plans to construct a casino in Rohnert Park, Empire will again offer its Federal Indian Law elective course, as well as a popular stress management course known as Contemplative Practices.
Other programs could be developed in the meantime, influenced by demand and recent trends.
“We have ongoing electives that we plug in as we see fit,” said Mr. Robertson. “This is a faculty and student-driven process.”
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