Providing future legal professionals hands-on experience with legal software can set them up for success; but with new opportunities come new challenges legal educators must overcome.
"Just hire a bookkeeper or accountant" - student feedback
In my previous article, "Why You Shouldn't Drop That Legal Accounting Course," I discussed how students fear legal accounting at first and then realize its benefits once that fear is let go. Now that the fear is gone, a new challenge surfaces; which is learning legal accounting software!
As a professor who teaches courses surrounding various software, the legal accounting software section of the class tends to be the most stressful for both students and professors. The reasons being that students instinctively get the notion that learning the software - the language used within the software, and how to use it - will be challenging. They worry they will not be able to grasp the concept of the tasks.
As a professor, questions like “what approach will I use to ensure that each student understands and learns the software?” or “who has no computer software experience?” are common; as there always seems to be one individual that states that they are computer illiterate. Additional challenges arise when I consider whether the software company has implemented any changes since the last time I taught the course. Working to stay up to date on the evolution of legal accounting and legal accounting software is crucial to introducing it to individuals who have never been exposed to the software beforehand to be able to limit the barriers students face.
Conversations over the years with students suggest that the challenges faced differ based on whether the individual is a domestic or an international student. Through these conversations and observations within the classroom, I have determined that the following are a few barriers students experience while learning legal software. The challenges are span over a few demographics, such as international or domestic students, paralegal or law clerk students, and ones that I have observed firsthand throughout my career in the legal industry.
International students find that depending on their native country, the terminology used in the software is different, causing a slow down in comprehension of what is to be done or what it means. In some countries, law firms only operate with a general bank account; trust accounts are not used nor heard of, which results in the need to be able to have knowledge of why it is required and then the maintenance of it through the software database. How-to instructions are often not detailed enough for international students to work through specific tasks. In contrast, the concepts prove to be challenging as they are learning legal accounting for Canada and the software at the same time. The differences may be minor or insignificant to some, but when you need to learn the processes, terminology, and a software all at the same time.
How to overcome it: professors should seek to be aware of common differences and call them out in lecture, coursework, etcetera when it is relevant. Providing detailed instructions or instructional videos will be of great benefit to both students and professors.
At the time of writing this article, the college I teach at is getting ready for the Fall semester welcoming new and returning students. While in orientation with new Law Clerk and Paralegal students, two paralegal students who I taught in the law clerk program looked at me and said, what software are we using in Legal Accounting? I enquired as to why they were asking, and one said, “we are nervous for the course as it will be bad enough to learn legal accounting but a new software too!” Before even starting a course students become doubtful in the ability to master something new.
How to overcome it: a legal accounting software that is user friendly, easy to navigate, and simple to teach will make the subject matter much less daunting for those who are less confident with technology. In some cases, having an intuitive interactive tool helps to solidify concepts taught during the course.
Both domestic and international students have further mentioned that they struggle with having to learn bookkeeping and personal financing knowledge going into a legal accounting course where they will also be learning the software. This intimidating prospect is doubled when they open their software to find a program that is “too busy”, making it frustrating to navigate regardless of whether they understand the bookkeeping and finance concepts or not. Additionally, depending on which legal accounting software is used, new users tend to feel that there is too much to look at, small font size, and multiple tabs in some legal accounting software to find what they need. The ability to locate client files can be daunting.
How to overcome it: Paralegal students that I have spoken with recommend that software companies have a section designated for Paralegals and what is required to meet the expectations of their local Law Society (for example, in Ontario where I teach, provide access to By-Law 9 texts and forms). In addition, tutorials are beneficial to the users of legal accounting software, ensuring that there are resources available on how to do all tasks, from covering even the simplest of tasks such as how to properly account for the various disbursements that a legal matter has to a more complex financial report.
No matter the time spent within a classroom or students working within the software, it is crucial for students to develop their ability to work within the legal accounting software. It is not something that one can learn and remember the first time using it. It takes practice and a lot of patience. Those who teach students how to use this software should be aware of the barriers their students may face and take action to help them overcome them.
Angelina R. Asturi is a professor in the Paralegal and Law Clerk programs at Georgian College. In her role as Field Placement Coordinator for the program, she has assisted hundreds of students in launching their careers. She is a former Senior Law Clerk, with over 30 years of experience in the legal field. Angelina is currently completing a master’s degree in Business Innovation Leadership at the University of Fredericton, as well as completing the requirements to become an accredited Family Law Mediator in the Province of Ontario. As a contributor to Soluno's blog, Angelina covers topics on legal education, accounting technology, and the Canadian legal industry.
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