Combing through the past to prepare lawyers for the future.

I’m offering a new course this fall at Suffolk University Law School in Boston called Shakespeare and Knowledge Technology.

Odd combination, right?  I know. But hopefully not as odd as you may think.

Especially in their final year of study, many law students are bored with academics and anxious to get out into paying practice. Courses that delve into seemingly unrelated subjects, like early modern literature, offer respite. Courses that provide hands-on exposure to cutting-edge legal technology kindle much positive energy. Why not both?!

Bear with me for a moment while I talk about Shakespeare. Then I will explain how he provides a great context for learning about knowledge tech.

Re-reading Shakespeare

Most law students get exposed to Shakespeare plays before law school. Few pay much attention to them while in law school. I hope to change that for a dozen or so future lawyers.

An abundance of law-related themes are essential to plays like The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure — regulation of sexuality, governance and religion, gender roles and relations, justice vs mercy. The plays raise timeless issues about human behavior and the organization of society.

Amanda Gorman

And while some see Shakespeare as just another dead white man who’s been given undue attention in a Western patriarchal tradition, some of today’s rising poets beg to differ. Like Amanda Gorman, who was selected to read her work at Joe Biden’s inauguration.  When asked in a recent interview with the New York Times, “Are there poets for whom you’ve gained greater appreciation over time?“ she responded, “Shakespeare, hands down.”

Who was this awesome writer? Just a self-taught genius who left few other traces? One who wrote over a hundred poems expressing passionate love for another man? Poems that depicted their romantic triangle with a ‘dark lady’ who doesn’t seem to have been his wife?  Published under his own name, at a time when adultery and sodomy were severely punished?

The First Folio (whose 400th anniversary we’re about to celebrate) tells us little about the author, other than that he had “smalle Latine, and lesse Greeke.” Yet he seems to have had much Italian and French.

(Lawyers tend to have small algebra and less calculus. Small Github and less Python. But they champion good writing, at least in theory. And there have been few greater writers than William S.)

Was Shakespeare a practicing lawyer?

The “Shakespeare Authorship Question” (SAQ) remains a lively current debate, one that is far from settled.  Books and conferences continue to appear regularly on the subject. A surprising number of candidates are far more plausible than the fellow from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Mark Twain, in his last published book — Is Shakespeare Dead? — referred to his own doubts as early as the mid-19th century, and concluded that the Bard was likely a practicing lawyer. (For deeper analysis see Mark Andre Alexander’s “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument,” The Oxfordian, Vol IV (2001)).

Bryan Wildenthal

The doubts go back much further. Contemporary comments signaled awareness, or at least suspicion, that a pen name was involved, as law professor Bryan Wildenthal points out in Early Shakespeare Authorship Doubts (2019). The pervasive use of legal terms and metaphors in the Works likewise sharpens the identity question.

Traditional Stratfordian accounts are increasingly untenable. Mainstream scholars face a deep hole at the heart of their discipline, while proponents of alternative histories are full of ideas on how to fill it.

So, you’re likely asking, what’s the technology hook?

Knowledge technology

Besides their intrinsic interest, the Works of Shakespeare and questions about the author’s identity present especially rich opportunities to consider how technology can help us navigate oceans of information and arguable inferences and reach solid land of sound conclusions.

By “knowledge technology” I mean to refer to artificial systems that go beyond mere information processing.  There are at least two main forms: (1) knowledgeable machines, such as AI modules and expert systems, and (2) intelligent tools that help us humans know and think things, individually and together. Both are essential to modern law practice and justice systems.

Earlier technologies relevant to factual investigations range from simple text editors, spreadsheets, databases, and flow charts to purpose-built litigation support applications that allow teams to track evidence and competing theories. Deployments that support collaborative work are of particular interest.

I’ve arranged for student access to two commercial products, CaseMap and Storybuilder. Part of the course experience will be learning these platforms together and assessing the extent to which they do, and don’t, handle the kinds of analytical tasks presented by the materials.

Course goals

As a former clinical teacher, I’ve long championed experiential education. Over the past decade, I’ve enjoyed delivering maker-style courses in which students build law-related applications as part of their course work.

In this latest effort, they will make a variety of artifacts, including databases, timelines, and argument maps. I plan also to involve them in ‘making’ parts of the course itself, in its first iteration.

I have many goals for the course. Probably too many. One is to help students deepen their appreciation for one of the world’s greatest literary artists. Give them an excuse to enjoy the sheer pleasure of reading something other than statutes, regulations, judicial opinions, and law review articles. To learn about a very different, but strangely similar, time in human history.

More specific goals include helping students to sharpen their skills at

  • Critical thinking – what to believe
  • Argumentation – how to convince others
  • Factual analysis – fashioning and deconstructing stories about what happened
  • Collaboration – working in teams
  • Learning new technologies as agilely as possible

See Argumentative Intelligence for more on these themes.

Will this work?  I’m not sure, but it should be fun trying. And all will be well if it ends well.

Editor’s note:  Marc Lauritsen recently joined Legal Evolution as a regular contributor.  See Post 300 for background on Marc’s impressive career in law and legal tech.