Revising our outdated justice system (Part II)

Wednesday March 18 2020

In 1882, Thomas Alba Edison changed the course of humanity by illuminating the first 85 households in the world. Edison Illuminating Company had built the world’s first power plant, a direct current (DC) generating plant at the Pearl Street Station in New York.

Almost at the same time, Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-born inventor and futurist, came up with the first designs of an Alternating Current (AC) power supply. Mr Tesla was not interested in money; he was neither a businessman nor an investor, just an inventor with a passion for changing the world…making it a better place.

Mr Tesla sold most of his patents to George Westinghouse, an American engineer and businessman, who made the most out of them. Mr Westinghouse launched the first AC power supply to Manhattan.

This triggered the “War of the Currents”, which saw Mr Edison compete furiously for the prominence of DC against AC. A few years later, Mr Edison’s finances were exhausted and his company eventually merged with the competition.

This brought the war of the currents to an end, and eventually, the world of darkness was overpowered by light. There was no turning back to candles and gas …within a few years the world was, literally, electrified.

Last week, I penned off my column by asking a rhetorical question: What needs to change in our justice system? Almost everything; we need a system overhaul. The court systems, lawyers’ approach to practice, procedural law and legal education. But as the saying goes ‘Rome was not built in a day’…so this will take years. We must start now.

Justice was the word of the year 2018

Sam Muller, a Dutch lawyer, friend and innovative justice expert, brought to my attention a beautiful discovery. Mr Muller says that “The Washington Post reported on December 19 that justice was the word of the year 2018, based on data about searches on the online dictionary Merriam-Webster. Interesting. It seems there was a constant need for this word.”

Mr Muller concludes that “a movement is under way. No, not populism or Islamic extremism. A movement to get justice systems to produce better value.

To be more precise: to get ministries of justice, bar associations, universities – the threesome that have held the legal services marketplace in their hands for too long – to let go and innovate. The objective: to create a movement of funders and doers that will ensure that we realize Sustainable Development Target 16.3: equal access to justice for all.”

Mr Muller is right. Legal education, court systems and lawyering need to change their approach and practice. We have held justice hostage for too long.

Lawyers keep adjourning cases and delaying justice for their own personal benefit, teachers teach young lawyers how to do it, and judiciaries bow to it, in passivity, because the process would seem to be more important than justice itself.

2019 could be the year of light for justice. If we really want, we will find the ‘M-Pesa’ of justice, the ‘Uber’ of new generation justice systems.

Life has changed; university education has not!

The late Fulton Sheen rightly defined education as “the flow of information from the notes of the professor to the notebook of the student without passing through the brain of either.”

Life has changed; university education has not! The university model must change. Today, university’s outdated model is choking innovation.

Universities are organised in rigid faculties or schools that ‘own’ their students, who must follow a rigid curriculum taught by boring lecturers, who dictate old notes to many people at once and then examine their retention capacity at the end of the semester.

The cycle is long and hard to break. Legislators pass laws that demand regulators to keep the status quo. Regulators demand from schools to stick to the rule. After all, their main job, by law, is to keep the status quo.. Schools comply by killing any possible innovation from any lecturer or student…and the mediocre cycle goes on…always in the name of quality. Anything that pleases the regulator is priority number one…no matter how absurd.

Who will think out of the box and when? Will we have to wait for Harvard, Cornell and Stanford to change so that we follow them blindly? Why in such a diverse world did we get stuck in one educational model?

In search for meaningful classroom experiences

I dream of the days when students will simply register as ‘university students’.

They will then assemble their own degrees, choosing subjects freely and combining courses (for example, object oriented programming and law or finance and hospitality or law and statistics), and put together their own degree that would be awarded upon meeting a determined threshold.

Some argue that the classroom should disappear. I say, it depends. In the classroom, students learn foundational principles, the order of things and priorities, tolerance, respect, the ability to innovate; they question or challenge the body of knowledge; they become part of a profession for they spend time with ‘classmates’ who share similar interests and goals.

The classroom experience contributes to character growth; it teaches us to live and interact with people who think differently. In the classroom, students learn soft skills and smoothen their rough edges. The classroom is not just an academic space; it humanises us.  

But a classroom with a boring or mediocre teacher is an unacceptable waste of time…and this happens too often around here. In the old days, boring teachers were a necessity for they had classified information nobody else had access to.

Today, information is readily available. So, if a teacher cannot put anything original on the table, he or she is out of place. Every teacher today is called to be a true neo-Socrates.

The teacher of the 21st century should be less a producer of information and more an organiser of knowledge. The classroom experience must be expanded and transformed to take advantage of new technologies, transport and communication that allow students to experience the world and interact with other cultures, peoples, teachers and institutions.

Faster, more pragmatic and deeper education

Legal education worldwide rides on an antiquated education system. Studying law should be one of the most exciting adventures in life. It is about justice, about solving people’s problems, about making society work better.

Some students feel this way, but many are lost in the process, and our rigid university structure isn’t helping.

Academic instruction in the modern world will be faster, more pragmatic and deeper. It will be more like executive education. These changes will affect legal education in its very essence.

We need to rethink our university education model. Our disjointed legal education will not thrive within a mediocre university system. So, the change starts down there…at the very core of what universities are doing and how they are organised.

Next week, we will go deeper into what is happening to legal education; then the following week we will examine the court system and finally, we will look at the practice of law.

Happy New Year!

Dr Luis Franceschi, Dean – Strathmore Law School, [email protected]