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The dos and don'ts of transitioning to virtual: A case study on a legal institution's successful response to Covid-19

September 30, 2020
David Perla

When Covid-19 disrupted Bucerius Law School’s in-person summer program, hosts Dan Katz and Dirk Hartung created Legal Technology Essentials—a free online educational experience with lecturers from around the world. What follows is a conversation with Dirk and Dan and Burford Co-Chief Operating Officer David Perla, in which they discuss the lecture series, using it as a case study to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing legal institutions in an increasingly virtual world.


The Bucerius annual Summer Program in Legal Technology and Operations has been offered since 2018. What was the original plan for this year’s program?

Dirk and Dan: The Bucerius Law School summer program is a unique opportunity to discover seminal topics for our curricula, experience innovative teaching formats and collaborate with entirely new lecturers. For 2020, the program featured speakers from practice and academia, including legal technology and operations masterminds such as Mary O’Carroll from Google, Shannon Salter from the Civil Resolution Tribunal, Prof. Richard Susskind and Burford’s very own David Perla. We were originally expecting to welcome participants from over 30 countries—about 50% professionals and 50% university students—to our campus in Hamburg, Germany for an intense three-week program, just as we have the past two years, but when international travel came to a halt, we were forced to adapt.

When in-person was no longer an option, how did you pivot to a virtual program? What were the key adjustments that made this program so successful? And what challenges did you face?

Dirk and Dan: As an institution that promotes an innovative mindset and the use of technology, we realized early that just as we were bound to our living rooms, so were industry leaders, researchers and founders—to say nothing of hundreds or thousands of potential participants. So, we decided to extend the program to six weeks, offering just one hour of presentation and Q&A per day so that people could tune in at their convenience. To ensure the program remained accessible for those who wished to participate, we made a second adjustment: Eliminating the cost of attendance. Bucerius Law School is a non-profit organization and while we believe in the value of competition, we departed from our standard model, eliminating tuition and opening the program up to anyone who wanted to participate. That last step might seem small, but for an institution that praises its selectiveness, this was a first. Finally, the logistical centerpiece was the amazing technology Zoom offered—and that the team at our Learning Innovation Lab implemented. We are grateful for our colleagues’ robust assistance, which helped us power through even in the most difficult technical situations.

How did legal finance complement the program’s agenda? What was the motivation for selecting Burford?

Dirk and Dan: In both our research and our teaching, we emphasize quantitative methods and the application of mathematics and computer science to legal questions and problems. When rooted in complexity science, this can seem rather theoretical and academic. Legal finance, however, clearly demonstrates that numbers matter and that legal issues are so aptly quantifiable that companies can make a living from them. We believe that law’s future is finance, and we were looking for successful players, making Burford a natural fit. In addition, people like David Perla prove that a legal education can lead to great business success and an interesting and fulfilling career outside of firms and courts. 

David, did your presentation Legal Capital and Innovative Financing in Changing Legal Markets change because you were presenting remotely? What was your experience as an international lecturer to many hundreds of participants in dozens of countries?

David Perla: The presentation definitely changed. When I present or teach in person, I rely on the audience and class reaction to determine whether to slow down or speed up, add more detail, skip over details, or perhaps give an illustration or tell a story. Without that feedback, I had to be more careful about how I divided information between the deck and my speaking. Likewise, when I teach in person, I tend to use slides for reference, not as the primary source of information. But for an online class, without knowing whether a given participant is watching or listening, I had to make sure that the slides were more comprehensive than slides I would have used for an in-person class, and I also had to make sure that I more clearly referenced elements of each slide. Finally, I made a conscious effort to bring energy and enthusiasm from behind a computer screen.

Dirk, Dan, going forward, what do you hope to accomplish with this program? Having delivered this so successfully as a virtual program, do you envision a virtual component becoming a permanent fixture?

Dirk and Dan: We hope that this program showed a large audience that our school is committed to in-depth education on these topics. Ideally, participants received an introduction and have been motivated to dig deeper—possibly in one of our other programs or next year’s on-campus edition. Nonetheless, our positive experience with this program goes beyond just a marketing interest. Not only are we are planning to keep our new audience engaged, but we are also actively thinking about another edition next year. Our learnings will make it easier to integrate remote teaching sessions in our traditional programs.

In your opinion, what made this program so successful? What advice would you give to legal institutions responding to the pandemic’s impact on their programs?

David Perla: The first element of success was that the event was superbly organized, with months of advanced notice, extensive information about the student base, the other classes, the goals and what was expected of the presenters. I can’t overstate the need for advance planning, tight organization and regular communication.

Second, the global nature and the diverse background of the participants and presenters made this an especially interesting and compelling event in which to participate.  Putting aside the content of the various classes, it was exciting to be part of something where there were participants and presenters from all over the globe.

Third, the organizers curated the classes, minimizing the risk of repetition. Too often, programs have speeches or panels on topics that too easily lend themselves to overlap. In this case, teachers covered discrete topics, thereby allowing students to pick only those topics that interested them and allowing presenters to cover their topics in detail without risking the interest of participants.

Finally, because the teachers knew the agenda in advance, we were able to watch other earlier presentations and reference them or anticipate what future presenters might cover and suggest those presentations in our own class. That made the program feel more integrated, as opposed to merely a series of unrelated, separate classes.

Dirk and Dan: This was such a success because we could tap into a network of remarkable lecturers faster than anyone else. Though the foundations were laid over the past couple of years and are rooted in meaningful personal relationships, it helped to be the first such program out of the gate. 

To reformulate this as advice for other institutions: Just do it. Don’t get paralyzed by this unexpected and unfamiliar situation. You will inevitably make some mistakes along the way, but we found that our participants were very understanding. This is a new world for everyone and those who learn now will have a head start tomorrow. Technology has eliminated so many impediments to reaching large numbers of people, so don’t be afraid to think in completely different orders of magnitude. We wanted to reach at least 50 people—in the end, we reached over 5,000.