Scenes from my pre-law life and careers

Doing my best to make sense of the experience.

In October 2019, I was in the first session of his Innovation Diffusion in the Legal Industry class at Northwestern Law.  I was puzzled because I couldn’t figure why Professor Henderson, who was 16 years my senior (I am 41, he is 57), was openly acknowledging that the legal service market was remarkably inefficient. He claimed that much of the business of law was held together by perceptions of eliteness and pedigree rather than the objective and reliable measures of talent, ability, and productivity.  And he backed it up with data from both the past and present.

The source of my initial confusion was not that I disagreed with Professor Henderson in any way. Rather I was surprised to have an industry insider validate my observations that legal education and the legal profession suffered from a terrible case of faulty groupthink.

Soon thereafter, I read Bill Henderson’s backstory in his Legal Evolution post,  I am a LegalZoom Customer (070).

It turns out that we both finished our bachelor’s degrees in our 30’s (on the second try), for the purpose of going to law school. We both spent years sweating in blue-collar jobs as contractors, and we both followed our contracting gigs with jobs that required diligence and pragmatism on a daily basis, with people’s lives at stake: Bill was a firefighter/EMT-P, and I sailed passenger ships in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Now I understood his perspective as we both were looking at the legal world from the vantage point of outsiders.  Cf. Post 080 (Jason Barnwell describing how his prior training and experience as an software engineer also gave him an outsider’s perspective on law).

The outsider perspective makes it easier to see that law firms’ partner-associate train-on-the-job system is breaking down and that law schools are not currently well-equipped to pivot to a 21st-century skill set.  Bill’s solution was the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), founded with another of my forward-thinking law professors, Dan Linna, who taught my Innovation Lab class.

IFLP’s existence reinforces the point made by Duc Trang (formerly BigLaw, now general counsel specializing in human capital for Major, Lindsey & Africa): J.D. programs do not create quality job candidates, as they are all narrowly focused on substantive law. Instead, the differentiation between good candidates and great candidates comes from somewhere else, such as work experience, technical training, and interpersonal skills.

I should note that while I was, in fact, taking a law school class, I was not a J.D. candidate. Instead, Bill’s Innovation Diffusion class was one of several offered at Northwestern Law to JD’s, LLM’s and MSL’s (I am a 2020 graduate of the Master of Science in Law degree program). The MSL fulfills a simple but long-unmet need: sowing the seeds of legal knowledge in the minds of scientists, doctors, and engineers. Dan Rodriguez, when the Dean of Northwestern Law, worked with other technologically savvy and forward-thinking law professors to create a program that taught law to “non-lawyers.” See Post 077 (Dean Rodriguez discussing the origins of program). The MSL’s main entry requirement is a Science/Technology/Engineering/Math (STEM) background, and pulls students from a wide range of disciplines (my classmates were nuclear engineers, immunologists and MBA venture capitalists).

It is from this non-lawyer and blue-collar perspective that I explored the legal ecosystem, and from where I’d like to share some insights:

Law practice is hazardous to health

Substance abuse and suicide statistics for lawyers are disproportionate compared to other learned professions. I attended the country’s #1 BigLaw feeder school, but only met one alum who was still working in their post-graduation stretch of BigLaw employment. All the other alums I met, from corporate legal ops professionals to Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs), were “BigLaw survivors”.  They cut their teeth at a big firm, realized how unhappy they were, and switched paths.

The sole alum I met that was still enjoying their time in a big firm had one piece of advice: “Don’t buy the big house.”  That is, the likelihood of an associate becoming dissatisfied with their position inside a firm was so high, they shouldn’t bind themselves to monthly payments so large that they felt trapped in their (high-paying but stressful) job.  Cf. Post 177 (reviewing data on challenges of mental health inside BigLaw).

Change comes from leadership at the top … 

In terms of sheer persuasiveness for discussing the business of law, two of the most memorable from my law school experience were “non-lawyers” Angela Hickey (MBA) and Kim Craig (PMP/Six Sigma).  Both are two great examples of how to implement positive change leadership. They represent the future of law practice: Let the lawyers handle the subject matter, let the business folks handle the business of law, primarily because they know things the lawyers have simply not had the time or interest to learn.

Through my classes at Northwestern, both Hickey and Craig shared the insight that the reformation of their respective firms would have been difficult (if not impossible) without innovative managing partners that enabled them to build their own internal credibility with stakeholders.

Disconcertingly, candid thoughts from other legal ops professionals showed me the other side of the coin: when the innovative partner eventually departs the firm, the remaining “old guard” partners will often defund the efficient and profitable firm improvement efforts and revert back to the old ways (this has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 economic downturn).

… But they don’t teach leadership.

In the MSL program, I learned how to calculate the value of complex Intellectual Property portfolios using multi-layered Excel models from Joshua Gammon, who explained IP valuation’s interplay of dollar amounts, timeframes and probabilities by way of Drake’s equation:

The number of civilizations in the universe capable of communicating with ours = (Total number of stars) * (% stars that have planets) * (% planets that could support life) * (% viable planets that actually develop civilizations) * (% civilizations that develop detectable transmissions) * (length of time it takes those transmissions to reach us). Those trained in risk management should also recognize the same basic logic in the lottery (a $2,500,000 payout on a 1 in 13,000,000 chance makes a ticket actually worth $0.19, not $1).

Leadership relies upon similar calculation strategies. Leaders must constantly weigh costs against benefits, taking into account the probability that any good or bad event may happen, and make the best decisions with the knowledge at hand. Taking calculated risks (innovation, entrepreneurship) is what drives businesses forward. However, as Vanderbilt Professor Cat Moon points out so well, lawyers hardly take any risks and should try to fail more often. See Post 153.

I do not suggest lawyers place undue risk on their client’s wellbeing. Yet, there are many ways in which the practice of law can improve if those in charge would try new methods and ideas — it is hard to overstate how obvious this to an outsider with real-world life experience.  Cf. Josh Kubicki, “The Intrapreneur’s Dilemma,” Medium, Aug. 20, 2014 (describing unconventional work experiences that fundamentally shaped his career in legal innovation).

Follow the money

First-year BigLaw associates make $190,000 on average. This is possible not because of the value they create—indeed, everyone acknowledges they leave law school with gaps in their education—but because of the astronomical hourly rates charged by their firms. This has progressed to the point that many BigLaw clients refuse to allow their accounts to be billed for any first-year associate time: “Why should I pay you to train your employees? Give them a HotShot account and let me know when they’re ready to do their job.”

Slowly, client money and the fiduciary duty of lawyers as professionals will drive more and more work to technology and “non-lawyers.”  eDiscovery was the first piece on the chessboard: when a computer can do the job of reviewing, sorting and parsing documents faster, cheaper and more accurately than lawyers, the lawyers are obliged to surrender the task to machines.

In a single lecture series, I have heard computer scientists insist that any process of human cognition can (eventually) be replicated on computers, and heard lawyers insist that no one can do what they do. Admittedly, there are high-level legal counsel tasks best left to industry veterans. That said, with my training, I can automate an awful lot of legal services with AI-driven knowledge tools if you give me some subject matter experts and a Neota Logic account. Client money will follow the most accurate, efficient, and cost-effective solutions, albeit the diffusion will be slower when the decisions are being made by in-house lawyers socialized into the BigLaw mindset.

Model rules stand in the way

I considered a research project where I’d look into the ABA model rules, ferret out why the current rules existed as they did, and prescribe how to change them to fit the times. “Access to justice” is the usual cited cause for rule reform, but I have met lawyers who intentionally stopped collecting CLEs in order for their bar accreditation to lapse, and thus no longer be bound by the model rules. Why change a system when you can just walk away?

Modern business methods rely upon cross-platform collaboration, and if a professional standard prevents you from partnering with non-lawyers, see Rule 5.4, then you might just surrender your ability to practice law in order to better serve your clients.  Some have, and the number will continue to grow.

The path forward

I believe in IFLP’s mission to improve the variety of tools given to lawyers in pursuit of their craft. However, as a “non-lawyer”, I must also advocate for the corollary: give the tools of law to technical specialists who can improve legal service delivery.

This was the impetus for my founding of the 501(c)(6) trade advocacy group, the American Society of Legal Engineers, which is working to create educational and ethical standards for those who apply technology to the legal ecosystem. Cambridge Analytica is but one example of computer scientists applying their immense analytical power to legal and political systems to the detriment of society overall. We should strive to imbue those capable of such wholesale systemic change with the ethical reasoning to ask “just because I can do this, should I?”

I hope my insights from outside the inner circle prove useful. For questions (or if you are hiring) I can be contacted at

Homepage for American Society of Legal Engineers