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“Legal anthropology” in virtual worlds

About a week ago, Prof. Pete Fitzgerald of Stetson Law School dropped me a line inquiring about using Second Life to offer his first-year Contracts students to engage in what I might dub “legal anthropology.” The fact that Linden Labs was now processing millions of dollars of transactions caught Pete’s eye, and he realized that with all of these transactions occurring, surely there was a legal property/contracts regime emerging before our eyes. (Indeed there is, and denizens of Terra Nova would probably have some insight into that).

Briefly, Pete hopes to set up a “clinical” of sorts, allowing Second Life residents with contract-related issues or disputes to ask his students questions. (The students, of course, would not be offering “legal advice,” but I would leave the specifics of how that would work to legal ethicists to parse through). The purpose would be less about giving students an opportunity to practice and more to help them experience law as a malleable, organic, socially-constructed system.

If a virtual world is good for anything pedagogical, it would be to offer students an immersive experience, whether “real” (in the sense that real people would bring real problems) or simulated (scripted or otherwise pre-planned). I am hopeful that State of Play Academy would offer similar opportunities for exploration. In the context of legal education, being able to see and experience alternative legal regimes (Second Life, while governed by a EULA and California law, also presents a separate jurisdiction with its own rules and customs) can help students better understand law as a whole.

Our correspondence, which Pete graciously agreed to let me post to this blog, after the jump.

(My email to Pete, responding to his initial query, follows.)

1. Contracts “Clinic”

I like this idea because it provides a unique, authentic learning experience. You might want to do some legwork initially with the SLED or other lists just to familiarize yourself with the substantive contract issues that do arise to ensure that your students will actually encounter issues that speak to your class topics. (I would be surprised if not, but it’s good to be prepared).

Your biggest challenges will likely be (a) getting law schools acclimated and comfortable with Second Life — and using it; and (b) getting the word out about the clinic and having SL residents bring their issues to you. (a) is a known variable, but (b) is not — spreading the word in SL is a bit like a HS student body election. You’ll need popular SL residents to help out (e.g. through newspapers, blogs, and word-of-mouth).

Once you overcome (b), you’ll face the same challenges that any clinical faces — people who bring issues that are irrelevant to your purposes, personal conflicts that obstruct the substantive matter, “client” communications in general. You might want to chat with your clinical profs to get a sense of what these challenges might be and how to deal with them.

Do you envision the setup being a courtroom, an arbitration, or just counseling?

2. Contracts Simulation

I’m a big proponent of simulations (in fact, sims will be the centerpiece of the whitepaper I’m writing for the Berkman Center), but in this case I’m not convinced of the value to your class. The problem is one of establishing context: the students would all need to immerse themselves in SL and care about it before they will have anything worth contracting and then disputing over. You could build a simulation to make that happen, but suspect you would find it easier to do without making use of the MUVE (c.f. negotiations simulations from PON Clearinghouse). If you were teaching a property, class, on the other hand, then I could easily see the value-added.

But before I get too down on this, please say more about what kind of simulation you imagine. I would suggest that a contract simulation would be of immense value to the rest of the legal teaching world. As a matter of sequencing, however, I see it happening after you do #1, the “clinic,” so that you get a feel for what kinds of issues do arise in SL and how you might model them.

3. SL as Communication Platform

IMHO, SL is best used for immersive experiences, not communications. Presumably your students already meet face-to-face; SL is just not as convenient as instant message or phone calls. I find SL incredibly cumbersome for things like messaging and communicating, to be frank.

More feedback follows…

Fitzgerald, Peter wrote:

1. Opening a “Law Students’ Contracts Clinic” in SL

Since SL has developed a vigorous economy based upon transactions in Linden Dollars, SL residents may have questions regarding their transactions. The “Clinic” would provide a venue for SL residents to ask questions of second semester law school students in my Contracts course regarding the legal (or should that be “virtual legal”?) aspects of those transactions.
FYI, one of our project teams from last semester tackled the issue of LL seizures of property. Ultimately they lacked the legal background to get very far with this, but I can put you in touch with the team members who might have some insights from the various interviews they conducted, etc.

Of course, the “law” at issue would be not only the express terms of the real world Linden Lab Terms of Service (including its reference to California law) and accompanying licensing and policy documents, but also the custom and practices associated with conducting transactions in SL. Those customs and practices are not unlike the basis for the “common law” that first year U.S. law students study (or the “lex mercatoria” that sometimes figures in to more advanced discussions of international transactions in upper level courses).

It seems to me that if you did nothing more than use this opportunity to investigate an organically, visibly-evolving property scheme, that would be quite revolutionary and exciting! Doing that investigation could itself be more authentic and engaging than anything else. Unlike most contract regimes, your students can actually talk people who’ve seen the entire lifespan of the culture evolve to its current state (whatever it might be).

Accordingly the “Clinic” would provide an opportunity for the students to practice applying the basic principles they are learning to the issues that are identified by their virtual clients – the SL residents. The issues the SL residents identify would in essence substitute for the hypotheticals we ordinarily use in a real world law school class.

True — although one of the major advantages of hypotheticals is that you can dictate what issues they will, in fact, encounter. (On the other hand, the excitement of real discovery should be underestimated, either).

In doing so, we’d be consciously side-stepping some of the real world concerns/debates regarding the sources and role of “law” in a virtual community but, however interesting, those are more appropriately issues addressed in the context of a technology law course. (However, if this Clinic scenario were expanded to also encompass students enrolled in an International Business Transactions course it would be easy to incorporate more advanced discussions about the issues surrounding the choice of an “applicable law”.)

I’m very excited by the possibility of you expanding this to an advanced law course, where part of the need might be to break down doctrine and adopt a bit more of an anthropological perspective. Virtual worlds are more akin to a foreign jurisdiction than some set of US or California law.

2. Creating/Running Simulated Transactions in SL

This is a step back from the first scenario, where the “Clinic” is only open to those enrolled in the law school course, affiliated with the law school, or other wise approved in some fashion. That is, rather than being a venue open to all SL residents, the students (or other approved individuals) themselves would identify the issues to be discussed based upon their own dealings in SL. Alternatively, animations could be developed to present predefined hypotheticals for the students’ consideration and analysis.

3. Using SL as a 3D Communication Vehicle

Alternatively, rather than establishing a “Clinic” like venue, SL could simply be used as a place to meet and discuss issues raised in class. This is a further step back from the first and second scenarios, and obviously the easiest to implement, and would be an easy substitute for the existing class listserv and similar tools. However, it also makes the least effective use the potential the SL MUVE potentially offers over other tools.

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