Disruption and change are constants in the legal industry today and many law students, young lawyers, and seasoned partners have been personally affected by the ongoing shifts. The legal industry in Washington has been no exception, but some see these challenges as an opportunity.
Two professors at Michigan State University, Renee Knake and Dan Katz, are behind an initiative known as ReInvent Law. A series of “free, open conversation-sparking exchanges” recently held in London, Dubai, and Silicon Valley (with one scheduled in New York this fall) brought thinkers, entrepreneurs, legal educators, and legal professionals together, encouraging attendees to re-examine the tenets that undergird the legal industry. (Most of the talks have been archived online at the ReInvent Law Channel, if you’re interested in learning more.)
Four key themes have emerged from the ReInvent Law conferences: innovation, education, access to justice, and entrepreneurship.
Corporate and other sufficiently well-heeled clients are emerging from the Great Recession unwilling to maintain the unlimited legal budgets of the past. They want innovation to create the same efficiency in legal services that it has produced in other industries. ReInvent Law brings together venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, knowledge management experts, and other legal professionals to collaborate and discuss how changes can be made and what kinds of changes those could be. As an example, , Foundry Group, a venture capital firm based in Colorado, made a $5M investment in Modria, an online dispute resolution system based in Silicon Valley. Foundry Group managing director Jason Mendelson and Modria Founder/COO Colin Rule first met at the ReInvent Law conference held in Silicon Valley.
Legal educators must reform the legal education system to train lawyers for the new economy. Professor William Henderson, from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, a noted lawyer development expert, spoke about the history and future of lawyer development. He highlighted collaboration skills, effective communication skills, (including empathy, self-awareness, and listening), project management, systems engineering, knowledge management and design, among others, as key competencies that lawyers of the future must develop. Sam Rysdyk, a fellow at ReInvent Law, spoke about lawyers learning computer programming and coding languages, pointing out both that law schools would be well served by teaching more “hard” skills and that there are significant similarities between legal code and computer code. Beyond these examples, Professors Knake and Katz have begun teaching entrepreneurship to their law students at the Michigan State Law School. They encourage students to apply their legal knowledge to develop innovative legal service solutions like the advertising risk analysis software developed by a student that won an AdWeek award.
Access to Justice
Legal services have become so expensive that many in the lower economic echelon cannot afford a lawyer, creating a significant access to justice issue. While the access to justice theme may involve a very different clientele than the innovation theme, innovation in the design and delivery of legal services will improve access to justice for underserved populations. Online dispute resolution forums, rethought court systems, plain language legal proceedings and statutes, and better designed legal forms are just a few ideas that may provide access to legal services at a fraction of the current cost.
Today’s lawyers must develop an entrepreneurial mindset, including honing skills such as ingenuity, comfort with ambiguity, and big-picture thinking, for two reasons. The first reason is to see and grasp new opportunities in the industry and avoid being left behind. The profession is undergoing significant structural changes, and lawyers who are quickest to acknowledge and adapt to those disruptions will be most successful and happy in the new economy. The second reason is to minimize the personal stress and professional risks inevitable in the changing careers of tomorrow’s lawyers. Gone are the days that a lawyer can expect to be employed by one law firm for her entire life. In fact, just as a millennial entering the workforce today can probably expect to change jobs and even careers every few years in her working life, a lawyer may find himself switching from practicing lawyer to litigation project manager to software entrepreneur to in-house counsel, all in the course of a single career. While it’s true that many of these roles may require (or certainly heavily leverage) a legal degree, the transition in and out of each will demand broader professional flexibility and perspective of lawyers and law students.
These principles and opportunities are particularly relevant for attorneys in Washington, with Seattle frequently named as one of the top places to start a company, because of the innovative and forward-thinking talent that resides here. The state and local bar communities, as well as Washington’s broader legal community, have a long and meaningful history of working to address access to justice issues. If access to justice can be improved using innovation and technology, the Washington legal community seems fertile ground for those ideas to sprout. Finally, a recent piece by the National Law Journal named Seattle as #4 in the top cities that lost lawyers in 2012. While it’s probably not worth putting too much analysis into that ranking, capitalizing on an opportunity to innovate in the legal industry instead of seeking a traditional legal job may be better economically, at least in the short run — if you want to stay in Seattle.
For young lawyers in Washington, the crux of the ReInvent Law initiative is that the current crisis in the legal industry presents a tremendous opportunity for innovation and leadership. Young lawyers who take the reins and help shape the future of the profession now will not only avoid the professional harm that may come from doing nothing at all, but will also have an opportunity to shape the future of the legal profession and society.