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30th Anniversary Post - Can Computers Teach the Law?

Thirty years ago this fall, my fellow law school classmate, Ron Wright, and I released a computer game at Yale designed to help teach pre-trial discovery (an aspect of Civil Procedure) to fellow law students. It seemed to us then, as I still believe, that there are aspects of the law well suited to be taught by the famous case method (e.g, Constitutional Law, Torts, etc.) and there are other more practical subjects that can best be taught via a simulation game.

Today, this is perhaps obvious. In 1983, gamification was far from accepted practice. Nonetheless, a courageous and intellectually vigorous Yale Law professor, Owen Fiss, supported our efforts, and our "game" became widely used in law schools across the US.

Here is a link to a New York Tines article written about our efforts later that year. The text of the article is reproduced below.

Happy Birthday.



NYTimes.com

When Thomas Glocer was a first- year student at Yale Law School it took him 10 hours to complete the final assignment for Prof. Owen Fiss's civil procedure class.

It took his friend Ronald Wright 12. And afterward, both students said they had not learned as much as they should have from the exercise.

This month, first-year law students at Yale are spending one and a half hours doing the same assignment, and they may learn more from it than either Mr. Glocer or Mr. Wright did.

Professor Fiss, one of Yale's three professors teaching civil procedure this semester, is replacing what was a written exercise with a computer game created by Mr. Glocer and Mr. Wright.

The game is designed to teach students about discovery - the pretrial process by which litigants obtain information from each other. With the game, Yale joins a growing number of law schools - including Harvard, the University of Minnesota and University of Illinois - using computers as teaching aids.

Until now, Professor Fiss would present his students with a set of problems concerning a case they were familiar with. Each problem would be designed to investigate a different aspect of discovery. He would ask them to answer questions using the Federal court rules of civil procedure as guidelines.

''What happened most of the time with the written exercise,'' Mr. Glocer explained, ''is that students would not use the rules but simply paraphrase them to support their preconceived conclusions.'' ''Discovery is actually an interactive process,'' Professor Fiss said the other day. ''It is easier to teach students this with a computer than with a written exercise.''

This month, four students at a time have been acting out discovery while the computer mediates. The four sign on to a computer terminal, two as attorneys for the plaintiffs, two as attorneys for the defendants.

It is the goal of the plaintiffs to acquire as much information as they can from the defendants, who begin the game with all available information in their possession. This is done by way of a dialogue carried on between words on the screen and responses litigants type into the terminal.

According to Mr. Glocer, a typical dialogue between attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defense might include the following exchanges, with the computer acting as judge:

COMPUTER: Attorneys to the plaintiff, would you like to have discovery of the testifying experts' report?

PLAINTIFF: Yes.

COMPUTER: Attorneys to the defendant, Jones and Smith, do you object to allowing plaintiffs' discovery of the testifying experts?

DEFENSE: Yes.

COMPUTER: Using the global objection code reprinted below, please specify why you refused the plaintiffs request for the testifying experts' report.

DEFENSE: The item is subject to absolute work-product protection.

COMPUTER: I'm surprised you missed the correct objection to the requested discovery. Your argument that the testifying experts' report was subject to absolute work-product protection is incorrect. Had you objected on the proper ground that the item was protected expert information, I would have awarded you the costs for your motion.

''This is real-life interaction with the rules,'' said John Morris, a first-year law student. ''A paper just gave you a big fact situation, then sent you out to find the rules. You'd just sit down with a book and say we'll try this and this. The discovery game is dynamic.''

The game assures that plaintiffs appreciate the cost of litigation by closely following their budgets.

''Obtaining the report from expert witnesses will cost plaintiffs at least $150 if they are successful,'' the computer might say to the plaintiffs before asking them their plan for action. When funds dry up, the computer warns they can go no further - unless they get a loan. The program gives loans, too.

''There has to be a way of taxing frivolous attempts,'' Professor Fiss said. ''This is hard to do in a written exercise.'' Emphasis on Process

It is the process that is important in this game. Nobody wins or loses. ''That would be too Harvard,'' said Mr. Glocer.

A number of Yale law professors say they are optimistic that the discovery game will be success and could lead toward greater acceptance of the computer at Yale.

''I'm delighted with the Fiss experiment,'' said Harry Wellington, dean of Yale Law School.

''At Yale, we do not need to use computers to save money,'' the dean added. ''With our high faculty-student ratio we also do not need computers for teaching assistance. But I see this as an evolutionary process, and we are dedicated to using anything we can to make the teaching process better. The computer is as usable as blackboard and chalk.

''I look forward to playing the game.''
Published Sunday, October 13, 2013 11:22 PM by Tom Glocer

Comments

 

saidmia said:

This is really a very nice post. I like it and some interesting but important thoughts have hit my brain to think over it!
December 17, 2013 1:12 PM
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