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Legal Aid, Version 2.0

new digital technology to modernize bc lab

By Jan Wolfe '11

After sitting in a classroom for most of their law school lives, BC Law students who participate in a clinic their second or third year suddenly find themselves on their feet in the courtroom, representing clients in a wide range of legal matters.  But for many student-practitioners, it is the initial client meeting, not their first court appearance, that causes the most anxiety.  They wonder what tone to strike, how to handle disagreements, how to come across as reassuring when their confidence in their own ability is shaky.

In order to help students become more confident in their counseling skills, an influx of innovative learning technology has arrived at the BC Law Legal Assistance Bureau (LAB) in Waltham, Massachusetts, where the Civil Litigation Clinic, the Community Enterprise Clinic, the Housing Law Clinic, and the Women and the Law clinic are housed.

From the 1980s until last year, the clinical instructors at LAB would use VHS tapes to record students’ client meetings.  Assessing a student’s performance and providing feedback entailed scheduling a time to meet with the student in one of LAB's interview rooms. “I would go into the meeting with a list of times – down to the exact second, and manually fast-forward and rewind on the VCR until I found the moment in the recording I wanted to discuss with the student,” said Alexis Anderson, an Associate Clinical Professor and a LAB supervisor since 1983.

Meanwhile, legal clinics run by other Boston-area law schools were upgrading to digital recording equipment and piloting innovative computer software that allows them to annotate, edit, and excise clips from the digital recordings.  “We clearly needed a more modern and efficient system,” said Anderson.

Anderson sensed LAB's opportunity for an upgrade when BC created the Academic Technology Advisory Board (ATAB), which since 2007 has funded projects on campus that encourage innovative use of technology in research and teaching.  The clinical instructors at LAB, along with Chester Kozikowski, the law library’s Faculty & Technology Support Specialist, and Denise Sharif, the law library’s Educational Technology Specialist, crafted an ambitious and detailed proposal for more than $30,000 in new cameras and camera equipment, computers, microphones, and pedagogical software for the interview rooms.

The proposal was accepted in the spring of 2009, and the staff at LAB, with the support of the law library staff and Wayne Daley, Assistant Director of Media Technology Services, quickly began implementing the new hardware and installing the new software. Students participating in this year’s clinics are the first to exclusively use the new technology.

Both students and faculty at LAB are in the process of familiarizing themselves with a video/audio tagging application and editing software called MediaNotes, which was conceptualized by two law professors at Brigham Young University (BYU) in order to provide better instructional feedback to students in interviewing, counseling, and negotiation courses.  MediaNotes allows instructors to “tag,” or highlight, a certain point in the recording and categorize it with a general label (like “effective” or “ineffective”).  Instructors can also add longer text comments that correspond with certain moments in the recording.

Both students and faculty value the flexibility all this digital technology provides. Rather than having to watch recordings of client meetings at LAB, they can review it at the law school, home, the courtroom, or any other remote location.  A student and a faculty supervisor can simultaneously view the same material online from different locations.

The ease of accessing the digital recording has freed students from the distracting practice of taking notes during client meetings. “With less pressure to take comprehensive notes, meetings are less likely to get bogged down,” said Ryan Morrison, Law ’10.

The new technology has also facilitated LAB's weekly seminars in which students discuss their cases with their instructors and their peers.   Instead of wasting time during the seminar fast-forwarding and rewinding a tape in search of material, LAB faculty make a compilation of short clips that best demonstrate the points they want to raise.  

Students have found that the new technology helps reinforce their instructor’s advice on client counseling.  “In seminars, we tend to tackle the topics that are most contemporary,” said Morrison.  “Being able to cue up video in an afternoon seminar that was recorded the very same morning helps us learn and practice at the same time.” Students also have the ability to re-watch clips after the seminar if they have lingering questions.

One of the creators of MediaNotes, Larry Farmer, the Marion G. Romney Professor of Law at BYU, has agreed to come to Boston in April to offer an advanced MediaNotes tutorial to clinical educators at BC Law and other Boston-area law schools. “We’re still learning how to best use the digital platform,” said Anderson.  “We want to make the most of it and hopefully share our experiences and successes with the other clinical programs at BC Law.”

For more than forty years, the Legal Assistance Bureau has provided free legal services for low-income residents of Waltham, Watertown, and Newton in a wide range of legal matters, including domestic violence prevention, family law, landlord-tenant disputes, Social Security disability appeals.  Pursuant to the Massachusetts student practice rule (SJC 3:03), students supervised by a faculty of supervising attorneys and a clinical social worker are certified to represent clients in every aspect of litigation, including appearing in court and at federal and state administrative hearings.  LAB also offers free legal services to small businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and first-time home-buyers through its Community Enterprise Clinic.