A long-time law practice mentor of mine used to say after spending the day with really smart people discussing big problems and solutions, that all that thinking gave him a headache. If that’s the case then Carl would have had colossal migraine if, like me, he participated in the Building a Better Lawyer” Design Thinking Workshop at Michigan State University College of Law yesterday. (Want to see more? See  #betterlawyer).


Dan’s Workshop

Put on by Dan Linna and his team at LegalRnD, the Workshop included representatives of big law, in house legal departments, academics, bar association leaders, business representatives and last but certainly not least, law students. LegalRnD is dedicated to improving legal-service delivery and access across the legal industry through research and development of efficient, high-quality legal-service delivery tools and systems. 


At Dan’s invitation, we all gathered on a cold late winter day in East Lansing to tackle weighty questions vexing the profession. The workshop was led by Dan, an affable, forever young Peter Pan like professor, practicing lawyer and innovator (it was Dan and his team that created the law firm and law school Innovation Index that ranks how innovative those organizations are).  Dan is one of those people with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, especially when discussing innovation and technology in the legal space.


It was also led by an equally passionate Margaret Hagan, the Director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School. The Legal Design Lab is an interdisciplinary team based at Stanford that focuses on building a new generation of legal products & services. Despite her youthful appearance, Margaret was an expert facilitator who guided us through a design thinking, prototyping process being both cheerleader at times and the steady anchor to windward where necessaryShe got us through the process and to practicable and doable proposals to address what at first blush seemed insurmountable. 

Most brainstorming sessions on these kinds of issues with these kinds of divergent stakeholders either result in no agreement on anything or outlandish, pie in the sky and even laughable proposals.


And I must admit, going in I was skeptical that anything practical could come out: most brainstorming sessions on the kinds of issues we were given to tackle with these kinds of divergent stakeholders either result in no agreement on anything or outlandish, pie in the sky and even laughable proposals. Instead, Margaret and Dan successfully (and, thankfully, relentlessly) drove us in just the opposite direction.

Problems We Tackled

So how big and seemingly insurmountable were the issues we tackled? Well here are some of them:

  • What will the “ideal lawyer look like in the future? What knowledge, skills and characteristics should a 21st century lawyer have?
  • Is the way law teach adequate? What habits, skills and competencies emerge or should emerge?
  • What are should be the burgeoning law school innovations?
  • What are the future and present community and market needs lawyers should address? How are these needs changing and what should be done to address this?
  • How do we solve world poverty? (Just kidding about this one although with Margaret and Dan at the helm, we might make a dent in it).


Lawyers, commentators and regulators have devoted reams and reams of paper addressing these issues with little if any impact. But undaunted, Dan and Margaret broke us up into small groups and forced us to use the design thinking format to tackle the issues, come up with ideas and issues, test our ideas and finally to pitch our proposals to the group as a whole.




Undaunted, Dan and Margaret broke us up into small groups and forced us to use the design thinking format to tackle the issues, come up with ideas and issues, test our ideas and finally to pitch our proposals to the group as a whole.

The Results

The result: all sorts of proposals from specialized certificationsapprenticeshipsand client immersion as part of legal education. One group (mine) came up with creating a specialized curriculum for law students interested in someday representing small businesses that would include not only course work but a 3rd year internship with a small business or businesses. Another group forcefully advocated a law school curriculum that that would focus on collaboration and team building as opposed to spitting out fighters that as Kathleen Lopilato of Auto Owners Insurance eloquently (and bluntly) put it, were nothing more than bloody mouthed carnivores who hinder efficient resolutions instead of facilitating them. 


Several proposals centered on using data about law students,clients and experiences to better match law students with firmsand lawyers in general to clients who needed them, similar to the matrix approach used by companies like QualmetAnothergroup proposed to make a dent in our A2J problem by creating an app that non- legal professionals might use to refer patients or clients they come across to help them find legal help as they discover problems. Another very innovative idea was to take abandoned malls and turn them into legal service facilitieswhere those needing legal help and issues resolved could go to to get aid. Sort of a one stop shop.


Other ideas batted around: training for younger lawyers by using hypothetical situations and then client and supervising lawyers feedbackeliminating grades and instead focusing on having students develop portfolios that could help employers make hiring decisions(As one person put it, I don’t get a grade for my job performance; I get an evaluation. The same should be true for students)Another idea was to get rid of the bar exam in its present format. Why force applicants to memorize big junks of information now freely available and accessible everywhere? 


Yet another idea; have law schools take on a more significant role in CLE. Law schools have experienced teachers with a vast knowledge of various subject matters. This could be a great way to learn could facilitate more communication and relationships between the practicing bar and law students and could be source of revenue for law schoolsAnother approach was to use military scenario training to train lawyers. All good ideas. All practical ways to attack the elephants in room piece by piece. What a fun and enlightening day. 

The Attendees


And what did I think of the attendees? Here are my takeaways:


• Law students (at least the ones I met) are bright, articulate and unafraid about the future. They are sensitive to challenges we have as a profession and are devoted to a greater good. I have no doubt our profession however it looks or changes-will be in good hands with lawyers like these.
• Bar association representatives (at least the ones who attended) are not the party of no. They take their jobs seriously true but they know that things are changingand how they perform their jobs as watchdogs of the profession is also evolving . They are open to reason and discussion.
• Most outside and in-house lawyers understand and are concerned about the a2j problem. They appreciate the fundamental damage the problem poses to us alldeclining access to justice means a decline respect for the rule of law. 
• Law school representatives understand and appreciatetheir role not just in training and educating future lawyers but in being a change catalyst for the profession as a whole.
Can the Law Schools Lead Us?


It was this last point that perhaps was most enlightening. At the end of the program, Dan asked me if I thought law schools had a role in innovation and leading changes to the profession to deal with future challengesIt struck me at the time that it is discussions such as those that occurred at the workshop thatcould indeed serve as true catalysts for changing. Perhaps law schools are ideally situated to bring together the disparate groups and interests to deal with the changes being or will be thrust upon us and help handle those changes in a way that helps all of us, lawyers or not. 

Perhaps law schools are ideally situated to bring together the disparate groups and interests to deal with the changes being or will be thrust upon us and help handle those changes in a way that helps all of us, lawyers or not. Law schools should have the time, energy and facilities to lead the profession into the next decade

Law schools should have the time, energy and facilities to lead the profession into the next decade, not only preparing their students to deal with and be competitive in the future but the rest of the profession as well. Law schools command the respect, have the some of the smartest and creative lawyers in the world like Margaret and Dan working for them and may very well be in the best position to lead us forward. 


Thanks to Dan, Margaret, your team and Michigan State and Stanford for seeing this and for taking up the gauntlet to do just that. And thanks to Thomson Reuters for once again sponsoring a program to help our profession.