Learning law by matching wits with a computer

There was a time when attorney Perry Mason gained fame by adamantly protesting, ''Objection, your honor'' to a judge during a TV drama.

Time has overtaken television scenarios.

Today, some law students are being taught when to raise objections by computer. And law is not the only subject entangled in a growing romance with that increasingly influential educational instrument.

Computers have become ''teachers'' in a growing number of other fields. They already help teach journalism, art history, and medicine, as well as languages such as Greek, Latin, German, and Spanish, according to Dr. Russell Burris of the University of Minnesota's Consulting Group on Instructional Design. In teaching language, for example, a properly programmed computer can ask the student to type in a proper verb form. The computer then evaluates the correctness of the answer.

Here at Harvard Law School, law students are no longer confined to listening to a professor's lecture or scanning (sometimes sleepily!) a textbook explanation of the ''rules of evidence.'' Today's Harvard student can take part in a computer simulation which demands his active thought and participation. In just a few minutes, he may be called upon to play the part of of defense attorney, prosecutor, or judge, in courtroom jousting played out on the computer screen.

Take the student ''defense attorney'': When should he ask the judge to bar the damaging evidence to be given by a prosecution witness? This aspiring Perry Mason sat in for such a student and tried his hand on the magic keyboard.

First I type in the commands to give me access to the computer program. Then, by pressing the ''advance'' button, I lead the computer through an on-the-screen explanation of how I should play ''courtroom.''

Then the prosecutor's first question flashes on the screen.

Mr. Smith, How long have you known the defendant?m

To object or not to object? I cautiously decide to pass. I hesitantly type ''No objection.''

Isn't it true, Mr. Smith, that in all the years you have known the defendant, you have found him to be dishonest and unworthy of trust?m

At this point the Perry Mason in me comes to a boil. ''Objection,'' I boldly type onto the computer screen.

I press the button to advance. The words of a wise and balanced judge jump quickly and approvingly on the screen:

Objection sustained!m

I had won that round. But it was not until the end of the whole exercise that the judge told me why. And by then he had also overruled a number of my objections.

By then, too, the prosecutor's questions have somewhat penetrated my client's protestations of innocence. So I began to wonder if my client is perhaps guilty - or whether I am simply a little unseasoned in the courtroom.

It is not until the end of the exercise that the judge confides to me on the screen the rationale behind his rulings. As for his reasons for sustaining my objection to that second question by the prosecutor:

The prosecutor's question improperly calls for an opinion, and no foundation has yet been laid for the question.m

The style of program used at Harvard Law School has caught on as a teaching tool in an increasing number of law schools. According to Harvard's Prof. Donald Trautman, about 10 law schools have similar programs for teaching with the aid of their own microcomputers. Eleven others already have the equipment and are expected to use the teaching technique soon. And 11 others have expressed interest in the programs but do not yet have the equipment.

Ironically the computer, with its science-fiction imagery of complexity and impersonality, can be used to teach with one of the oldest and most personal methods imaginable. The ''dialogue'' can be almost Socratic in nature, with the computer sometimes playing the part of devil's advocate. Probing responses on the computer screen may inspire the law student to think more deeply.

Several legal educators compare the computer teaching session to a one-on-one tutorial. ''It can be more intense than a classroom situation,'' Professor Trautman says. ''The student cannot get away with not paying attention or snoozing, as he might in class,'' says Minnesota's Dr. Burris. Adds Trautman, ''After practicing with computer exercises, the student comes to class having already mastered the basics. This saves time, so that the professor is freer to concentrate less on basic knowledge and more on advanced topics, such as whether or not a legal procedure can be improved.''

Contrary to first impression, the teaching computer is as much a person as a machine. The reason? The machine is carrying out the instructions of the professor who wrote the program which guides the computer in its ''conversation'' with the student. As with any book or lecture, a program's intellectual quality, teaching effectiveness, and even sense of of humor reflect the personal touch of the programmer.

The author of programs or ''software'' must usually have expertise both in computers and in the academic subject matter. This can be a serious obstacle in developing software for computer teaching, several experts agree. According to Dr. Howard Reznikoff of Harvard's Office of Information Technology, the problem is more difficult as more sophisticated instructional materials are tried. Finding the right professor and teaching him computer skills can be difficult and time consuming.

Harvard Law has tackled this problem by recruiting computer-savvy law students to work closely with law professors who are interested in writing computer instruction programs. Dr. Reznikoff concedes the success of this approach, but argues that it has worked largely because the Law School has limited itself to relatively simple teaching programs.

The University of Minnesota's Consulting Group on Instructional Design has devised its own approach. According to Dr. Burris, some five computer specialists with expertise in adapting academic subject matter to computer programming are on hand to work with faculty members to write programs.

Another challenge is the need to standardize and circulate programs among universities nationally. The history of computerized law instruction programs has given one example of how this can be done.

Step 1: Beginning in the mid-1970s, the University of Minnesota developed its own legal instructional software to be used with its substantial computer facilities. Step 2: Other law schools hooked up to the Minnesota computer by telephone and use the program. Problem: Local law school professors dependent on Minnesota facilities were unable to custom design programs around their students' specific needs.

So in comes Step 3, as schools like Harvard Law (beginning in 1980) started to use instructional programs written on floppy disks by their own faculty, using relatively inexpensive microcomputers.

Professor Trautman says Step 4 is just beginning. One part is establishment by the Harvard and Minnesota law schools of the Minnesota-based Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. This aims to aid, encourage, and standardize computer instuction by law schools nationally.

According to Trautman, an important aim is to increase the interchangeability of law instruction programs developed around the country. For example, some 30 instructional programs created at Minnesota could be transferred onto floppy disks for widespread use in the inexpensive microcomputers other law schools are buying. The center could also adapt the programs by local law professors. Thus a nationwide pool of programs would grow.

To stimulate this growth, there must be incentive. Trautman says one hope is that law professors will more enthusiastically move to write their own programs, as the center's activities gradually give a greater chunk of the royalties to scholars and others who write programs.

One possible result: Scholars could increasingly be tempted to write teaching programs, much as they now write books and articles. Such accomplishments might even be considered in granting of tenure.

But even the most enthusiastic computer advocates stop short of suggesting that academe's time-honored admonition, ''Publish or perish,'' be transformed into ''Program or perish.''

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