In touch with … James Scheibner

In his dual role of law researcher and lecturer, Dr James Scheibner equips the next generation with skills they need for a changing world. We caught up with him to discuss Flinders’ cutting-edge new law course, and asked why ‘nerding out’ is his favourite hobby.

What is your role and what does your work focus on?

I’m a balanced teaching and research lecturer in the College of Business, Government and Law. My teaching responsibilities in our undergraduate law degree include LLAW3301 Law in a Digital Age, which is a unique offering in Australian undergraduate law degrees. In this topic, students use the open source document assembly platform Docassemble to construct legal chatbots for real-world industry clients. Flinders University is one of a handful of universities in Australia teaching its law students how to create legal chatbots.

To the best of my knowledge, Flinders University is also one of only five universities teaching its students basic software engineering skills using Docassemble. Our clients in past topics have included non-for-profits, government agencies and community legal centres. LLAW3301 not only enables our students to use technology to approach law differently, but also provides a taste of working in the access-to-justice space.

Because Docassemble is an open source platform, there is an option for our industry partners to commission their applications, which provides a great opportunity for our law students to put something impressive on their resumes. We also have close relationships with Suffolk University in the US and the University of Alberta in Canada which teach Docassemble.

What journey brought you to this point in your career?

Before working at Flinders University, I completed my undergraduate degree in law and computer science at the University of Tasmania. One of my first jobs involved working in a Hobart-based law firm as a consultant to write automated templates or precedents for staff to use. After I completed my Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice, I helped another Hobart law firm set up its precedents.

I was always drawn to teaching law, and I really enjoyed the process of writing my Honours dissertation, so I started my PhD in 2015. My thesis concerned the relationship between formal intellectual property rights, such as patents and copyright, and informal norms that exist in open source bioinformatics projects. Just before I completed my PhD in 2018, I was hired as a postdoctoral research fellow at the ETH Zürich Department of Health Sciences and Technology in Switzerland. I worked in the Health Ethics and Policy Laboratory on a project concerning the ethical and legal implications of privacy enhancing technologies for medical data sharing.

Building on the interdisciplinary research that I conducted during my PhD, I worked closely with the Laboratory for Data Security at EPFL Lausanne, which is responsible for developing advanced privacy enhancing technologies. I helped co-author several pieces, including a report for the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Office of Assessment (STOA) panel on data privacy and scientific research.

What is the Law in a Digital Age course?

From my perspective as an educator and a researcher, teaching law students how to program has several benefits. Software engineering and programming is fundamentally about logic, and being able to think logically is an important skill that all law graduates need to possess. They also need to be technically savvy, particularly when it comes to their professional obligations around confidentiality and professional client privilege. LLAW3301 teaches students several non-technical skills beyond software engineering, including project management, teamwork and legal research. The course also gives students an insight into the access-to-justice space, and how non-legal factors, such as the price of legal services, may impede people from satisfying their legal needs.

What do you love most about your work?

Flinders University has a reputation as a progressive university, and therefore it’s important that we develop graduates who are aware of growing socio-economic inequality in Australian society. For me, it’s very satisfying when students understand that LLAW3301 is so much more than coding. It is about using technology to help rectify access to justice.

What do you think law will look like in another 30 years?

I hope we will see better use of technology in legal services and better funding for community legal centres. For this reason, I link some concepts from my research, such as implicit bias in machine learning systems and ethical debt, to help explain the concepts I teach.

How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?

When I’m not writing lecture materials or writing the next paper, I relax by nerding out – playing board and card games, walking the dog and learning the slide guitar.

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