Law schools often claim that they educate students to "think like lawyers," but lawyers for which century? The reality is that, at many law schools, students are learning only the traditional "thinking" skills that have been taught for generations. To be sure, those analytical skills are still important, but students also need to learn how to think in new ways about the delivery of legal services. This short article summarizes some of our ongoing efforts to reimagine what it means to "think like a lawyer" in a modern legal marketplace and encourages others in academia and the legal services industry to join us in our work.
A New Legal Services Economy
There is little question that the legal marketplace is rapidly evolving as a result of technology and increased globalization. Although there is disagreement about the extent to which these changes will disrupt the need for lawyers in the future, there is little doubt that today's lawyers need a new range of skills and knowledge that they did not need a generation ago. For example, to remain competitive and competent today, lawyers need the ability to safeguard confidential information from cybersecurity threats, conduct Internet-based marketing and investigations, leverage cloud-based services to manage practices and engage clients, implement automated document assembly and expert systems, employ legal project management and process improvement, and understand the basics of data analytics and electronic discovery.1 We've come a long way from the days of typewriters as word processors, locked file cabinets as security, books as the primary sources of research, and anecdotes as data.
A 21st Century Law School Curriculum
Law schools have started responding to these changes in a number of ways. For example, at Suffolk University Law School, we have established an Institute on Law Practice Technology & Innovation, which is guided by a diverse group of expert outside advisors. With their input, we developed a proposal for our faculty's consideration to create a new Legal Technology and Innovation concentration. In 2013, the proposal was unanimously approved, creating one of the first formal programs in the country to equip JD students with the skills and knowledge they need to compete more effectively in a rapidly evolving legal marketplace.
All students in the concentration take cutting edge classes and discover a new way of thinking about the delivery of legal services. Students learn how to employ legal document automation and build expert systems. They develop legal project management and process improvement skills (and earn a yellow belt). They are also taught how to develop business plans and identify market opportunities and gain an in-depth understanding of the current legal marketplace. The program also offers a range of technology and innovation-related elective courses, many of which are jointly offered at Suffolk University's Sawyer Business School.
The learning extends beyond the classroom. Students in the concentration complete a required internship with a company or firm that uses technology or other innovative methods to deliver legal or law-related services. The goal of this requirement is to make sure that our students gain practical experiences that give them new insights into how legal services are delivered today. They also develop networks in an emerging part of the legal industry.
The concentration has begun paying professional dividends for our students. This past spring, we graduated our first class of legal technology and innovation concentrators. Although the first group was small, each one of them is now employed in the legal technology/innovation sector. Demand has been so strong for students who have these new skills that even graduates who did not complete the concentration, but who took a couple of courses within it, have found employment in the legal tech field.
The concentration has also proven to be valuable to the larger community. Students have developed tools to make underfunded public defenders more technologically advanced, worked with overseas legal tech startups, built expert systems to allow immigrants to know their rights, and automated court forms with plain language instructions to guide people who would otherwise go without assistance.
These students also have helped our clinics learn how to deliver legal services more efficiently. For example, they worked closely with one of our clinics—the Accelerator-to-Practice Program—to help develop a new way of approaching clinical education. The Accelerator is a three-year course of study that includes an embedded fee-generating law practice within the law school, teaching students firsthand how to leverage new technology and innovative methods to deliver legal services to people of modest means more efficiently, effectively and profitably.
Finally, we are building relationships that provide exciting opportunities for our students. One new partnership is with legal process outsourcing leader, Integreon. Integreon is establishing a center inside of our law school, which will hire up to 30 students to work on various client engagements. The students will receive training in legal project management, and will then be paid to work on projects involving e-discovery, document review, contract review and management, due diligence, and compliance. In an ever evolving legal job market, this focus on the provision of relevant skill sets will give the participating graduates a competitive advantage at the point in their careers when they need it most.
Of course, our students are still learning the analytical skills that are lawyers' traditional hallmark, but we're also ensuring that our students can learn to think about the delivery of legal services in new ways. They are learning how to leverage technology and other innovations in order to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving marketplace. We believe that lawyers who can marry traditional legal analysis with new insights about legal services delivery will be the ones who are best prepared for professional success.
Broadening the Mission
We are not content to stop at curricular innovations. The Institute hosts various events for students, lawyers, and the public, such as the ABA's first ever Legal Hackathon, a virtual program with MIT's Media Lab, and the debut of Evolve Law Live, which brings together legal startup founders and venture capitalists.
We also seek to help those outside our walls become more adept at using basic law practice technology. A few years ago, Casey Flaherty, a former corporate counsel at a major auto company, pioneered an innovative legal technology audit to test the efficiency of his outside counsel. We have partnered with Casey to enhance and automate the audit, and we have helped to create a free version of the audit for law students.
We also serve the legal profession as it searches for ways to use technology and innovation to bridge the justice gap. For example, one of us serves as the vice chair of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, and the other on the Web Technology Group of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
We're still in Beta and might never leave it
We are proud of the work we have accomplished so far, but it is just a start. There are so many exciting possible directions for our work, and we cannot possibly pursue them all. The market is constantly evolving, creating new opportunities all the time. That is why we are delighted that a growing number of law schools are involved in these kinds of efforts,2 and why we are eagerly watching and learning from their work.
There is plenty of room for anyone who might want to teach law students how to think about the delivery of legal services today. You just need an entrepreneurial spirit, the courage to make mistakes (we have made a few), and a recognition that the next generation of lawyers is going to need to think differently from the last. We believe that, if we all work together, the legal profession, law schools, and the public will all benefit from fresh thinking about what lawyers do. We want "thinking like a lawyer" to take on a new meaning—understanding what it takes to deliver legal services successfully in the 21st century.
1. Andrew Perlman. The 21st Century Lawyer's Evolving Ethical Duty of Competence. ABA Professional Lawyers, Vol. 22, No. 4 (2014).
2. Richard Granat and Marc Lauritsen. Teaching the Technology of Practice: The 10 Top Schools. ABA Professional Lawyers, Vol. 40, No. 4 (2014).
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