The Class of 2018: Michael Cherry

Michael Cherry

Students from Washington’s three law schools recently celebrated the culmination of their studies and hard work. Though the classes of 2018 come from a multitude of backgrounds, what they have in common is optimism and passion to take their newly learned skills into the community.

Below is a transcript from Michael Cherry, who is also the recently elected WSBA Board of Governors District 1 representative. Cherry was selected as one of two student speakers after earning his masters of laws degree in innovation and technology from the Seattle University School of Law.

Keep an eye on NWSidebar for speeches from other graduates.

Michael Cherry
Seattle University School of Law
WSBA governor-elect, district 1

Fellow graduates, Dr. Leary, Dean Clark, Father Topel, learned faculty, family and friends—I promise I will try to be brief.

I want to begin by thanking the School of Law by honoring me with the opportunity to speak on behalf of the graduates of the Magister Legum programs—forgive me, my Latin is extremely rusty—it’s no wonder everyone just uses the acronym LLM. LLM works especially well for me given my background in technology. As Professor Tapia taught us, everything in the world of technology has a TLA, or “Three Letter Acronym.”

In May 2017, two individuals graduated with an LLM in Innovation and Technology Law, and three individuals graduated with an LLM in tribal law and governance. Today, I am honored to be joined by five other individuals graduating with an LLM in innovation and technology law, an individual with an LLM in tribal law and governance, and an individual with an LLM in elder law. In addition, two individuals have earned a master’s in legal studies. Congratulations to you all for your hard work to advance your legal careers.

I’m excited that the Seattle University School of Law is now offering LLM programs. Two years ago, I attended a meeting to discuss proposed LLM programs the law school was considering. I was invited to the meeting because I was a member of the law school’s alumni board and because I attended the law school to become a lawyer after a long career in technology. I attended law school primarily because I wanted to understand the intersection of rapidly evolving business methods and technology, and the slowly moving laws which struggled to address the change.

During that meeting I learned about the innovation and technology law LLM and the proposed curriculum. I offered my opinion about the program. Frankly, I left the meeting so excited about the program and the classes which were to be offered that I applied and was accepted in the first class. Two years later I stand before you a newly minted LLM. I have learned more about the intersection of business methods, technology, and the law. The law still changes slowly—but I have a deeper understanding of the intersection.

I want to call out and specifically thank three people who I feel are responsible for these graduate programs, programs which I hope will bring greater acclaim to the School of Law and its graduates. Dean Clark, for her leadership of the Law School, which included guiding and approving these programs. Professor Erica Wolf, for taking on the role of running these programs, adding to the tremendous amount of work she performs on behalf of the law school and its students. Professor Wolf personally guided the students in these programs, helping us get registered for classes and taking a personal interest in our success. And Professor Steven Tapia—the distinguished practitioner in residence at Seattle University—who instructed and influenced many of the classes in the Innovation and Technology Law LLM. His practical knowledge as a lawyer with many tech and startup companies provided real insights.

As is the case in most situations like this, I am sure I have missed thanking many other people without whose hard work these programs would not succeed—but these three individuals are instrumental to the success of these graduate programs.

Now, I’d like to briefly talk about innovation and technology. Well, actually more about innovation. And not merely in the context of the LLM program, but rather, in connection with the legal services market most of us as graduates are entering today. Shortly after I passed the bar exam, I began to volunteer at the Housing Justice Project. This is a program run by the King County Bar Association. It relies mostly on volunteer lawyers and paralegals. HJP’s goal is to prevent people from being evicted and becoming homeless.

It remains an invaluable influence on me. However, I cannot express how surprised I was that I had to fax documents to and from the courthouse and plaintiff’s attorneys.

In this time of email, instant messaging, and encrypted communications, an incredible amount of work in the legal community is still conducted by fax. I have stood around waiting minutes as a paralegal—lawyers aren’t allowed to touch the copy/fax machine, well because we generally break it—but the paralegal punches in a phone number, waits as the machine dials, the phone rings, a connection is made, and a document is transmitted across a voice grade phone line, so it can become an illegible message printed on paper. It’s surprising the number of times I have to call the other party and ask them to check if their fax is turned on and loaded with paper.

It was also while volunteering at the Housing Justice Project that I became concerned about the legal system’s inability to handle the volume of people just looking for advice on how not to be evicted. A process wrapped up in legalese and mystery. So much so, as members of the legal profession we don’t even call it an eviction—we call it an “unlawful detainer.”

Most days, people at HJP are forced to face a commissioner in a show cause hearing in a court room labelled “ex-parte court” about an “unlawful detainer action” without representation. Without understanding either the law or what is happening. Like many others who struggle to find representation, they feel left out or abandoned by the legal system we, as attorneys, represent.

As a graduate of a Jesuit Law School with a focus on justice, this situation worries me—as I drive home after unsuccessfully arguing for a negotiated settlement for my clients, I am continually asking: Am I doing enough?

Looking at the legal services market, many people tell me that on the supply side there are too many lawyers.

At the same time, on the demand-side, studies by the Washington State Supreme Court and the Washington State Bar Association indicate more than 70 percent of the state’s low-income households experience at least one civil legal problem each year on matters affecting the most fundamental aspects of their daily lives.

In the 2014 survey, 76 percent of the people who experienced a civil legal problem did not get the help they needed, and 65 percent of those people “did not pursue help at all.” Low-income and even middle-class individuals and families who do not have access to legal services are most likely to turn to internet-based legal services. And those services—although available—are often filled with potentially incorrect advice, particularly when the advice comes from a different jurisdiction or is applied to a set of facts with the wrong context.

We live in a state of visionaries. Washington is where William Boeing created the commercial airplane and airline businesses. Where Bill Gates and Paul Allen proved the viability of selling software independent of hardware. Where Redhook challenged “big beer” by showing them microbreweries could produce excellent beer. Where a cup of coffee changed from a commodity to customer service. Where Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and others redefined music. Where an online bookstore grew to challenge our concepts of retailing.

So here is what I want to ask you today: Why can’t Washington be the home of a visionary legal profession? A legal profession willing to redefine how legal services are offered to the public. A legal profession dedicated to finding a way to offer legal services to everyone who needs them in an ethical, efficient, cost effective manner, while allowing practitioners to make a living and pay off their student debt.

That’s the legal profession I want to be a part of.

There are a lot of ideas out there about how to make legal services better. But we have to do two things to turn those ideas into reality. First, we have to stop being a profession that clings to past practices and methods of practicing the law. Second, we have to truly embrace innovation and technology as tools to make us more efficient and effective.

Let me point out, one doesn’t have to be in the tech sector to innovate. Of the examples I used to describe Washington state as a home for innovation, only Boeing and Microsoft started as tech companies. Innovation isn’t limited to the young undergraduates working in the fields of computer science or engineering. You don’t have to drop out of Harvard or Stanford to be an innovator or a visionary.

In fact, most successful startups are founded by older people. A common theme of successful innovators is that they experienced failure. But from those failures they saw an inefficiency in a market. They saw an unserved community or a problem that needed to be solved.

They were willing to try something new to address the problems others had given up trying to solve. Or were convinced couldn’t be solved. “You can’t charge that amount for coffee?” “You can’t ship books to people—people want to browse through books to hold them in their hands, feel the pages turning.”

As one of the founders of PayPal points out, “Every one of today’s best-known innovations was once unknown.”

Sometimes innovation occurs by making incremental advances. Improving on the competition. Staying lean and flexible. Eric Reis, who writes about successful startups, points out that those that do succeed often have three structural attributes: Scarce but secure resources, independent authority to develop their idea or business, and a personal stake in the outcome.

I propose to you that as new graduates, our degrees grant us at least two of these attributes: independent authority and a personal stake. The third is sort of true: You have scarce resources; unfortunately, they might not be secure. That makes things harder but not impossible.

In reality, as new graduates we have so much of these attributes it is easy to feel overwhelmed about what comes next—well for many of you what comes after the bar exam, of course.

It’s up to you to realize you have nothing to lose by innovating. Stated another way, you have everything to lose by not innovating.

So be willing to think about new ways to provide legal services—new ways to make affordable legal services available in a manner that addresses the unmet need for legal representation.

Whether you are starting out on your own or joining an existing firm, ask yourself why are we continuing to work in the manner lawyers have in the past? Strive to solve the problems that are preventing us from expanding the reach of the legal services we offer.

Please, as you begin your legal careers, be innovators. Don’t accept the status quo. Change your profession for the better. Don’t accept that the area of law you want to practice in cannot be changed. You can innovate how family law, or trusts and estates, is practiced, just as you can innovate how a new area such as cannabis law is practiced.

I hope you will join me by working to change our chosen profession to make it visionary.

Thank you. My best wishes to you all. Work hard every day to help all your clients find the best possible conclusion to their legal matters and you will be a success.