Layering in a new set of skills and know-how in an already crowded law school curriculum.

Last week, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) acquired the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP).  From far away, many lawyers, law professors, and law students are bound to ask, “Why is the maker of the LSAT, which has been part of the legal education landscape for 70+ years, acquiring a fledging nonprofit start-up focused future of law practice?”

The answer is that LSAC and IFLP saw a clear pathway to benefit future generations of legal professionals in their work with clients and broader society.  Although some readers may question such a lofty purpose, we believe that as a self-regulated legal profession, it is our obligation to foster and maintain a legal system that works for all citizens and upholds the rule of law.  Only then is lasting prosperity possible, both for lawyers and broader society, and the promise of equal justice more within reach.

Our organizations have been in dialogue since the summer of 2018, when Bill Henderson reached out to Kellye Testy to discuss a possible strategic alliance. From the very beginning, we both recognized the challenges spanning our profession including the large and widening access-to-justice gap, the substantial investment of attending law school, the desire of law schools to develop new programs and expand existing ones while faced with real budget and capacity pressures, and sophisticated corporate legal departments struggling to manage the relentless complexity of running a global business.

IFLP focuses on building skills like legal operations, business, design, and data analytics to expand the value that legal professionals can bring to their employers. The huge academic and career successes of the students in its programs, see, e.g., Post 118, was plenty motivation to seek more reach and scale. As LSAC sought to do even more to serve its long-standing mission of encouraging and supporting diverse, talented individuals to study law, it broadened its focus to a more holistic view of the prelaw to practice pipeline. Afterall, what most attracts a candidate to study law is having rewarding and diverse pathways to pursue with their educations.

Reviewing these factors, the synergy with IFLP’s mission became crystal clear: together, we could create better, and more cost-effective solutions along the entire legal education journey to serve the needs of students, schools, employers and, ultimately, clients.  Moreover, as the non-profit hub for law schools and law candidates, LSAC is experienced at working alongside its member schools to augment their considerable strength for the collective good.

Where do we begin?

Making law more accessible, efficient, and equitable is a design problem that requires perspectives that go well beyond substantive law. While deep expertise is surely critical, that same expertise can often blind us to solutions outside our discipline.  Cf Herman Kahn, “The Expert and Educated Incapacity,” Hudson Institute, Jun 1, 1979.

There is a growing recognition that skills from other disciplines can make lawyers more effective. For instance, lawyers in Microsoft’s Legal Department (including two Legal Evolution regular contributors, Jason Barnwell and Lucy Bassli) were early adopters of skills and processes that helped them serve as broader, more resourceful and creative problem solvers — something that one of us (Kellye) witnessed firsthand as Dean of University of Washington School of Law.

While employers value these broader skills, a large number of the solutions are placed on the doorstep of legal education for implementation, all too often without a commitment of resources.  As two seasoned legal educators, we are certainly willing to own part of the profession’s challenges.  And here, we are willing to concede a key point.

Time is a finite resource.  As shown in our lead graphic, from a pure time perspective, it is far less expensive to acquire critical skills early in one’s career rather than later.  While it’s true that a law student’s opportunity cost is much lower than a mid-career professional who is already earning a substantial salary, there’re also significant advantages to communicating the change message to a pre-law audience, thus enabling them to be as proactive as possible in evaluating opportunities and allocating their time. Communicating early also helps those students imagine where and how they want to make their unique contribution to law and justice.

Here, obviously, there are advantages to LSAC and IFLP coming together.  LSAC reaches out broadly and consistently on behalf of legal education as a whole to encourage and support the study of law, and those efforts result in millions of visitors to its website and hundreds of thousands of participants on its platforms and programs. IFLP’s reach includes legal educators, legal innovators, and the profession more broadly. Together we have more reach and scale to provide end-to-end, cost-effective solutions.

Which critical skills?

To date, IFLP has focused on skills like legal operations, business, design, and data analytics to expand (or “scale”) the value that legal professionals can bring to their employers. We scale legal work by redesigning its many recurring parts so they can be systematized through a combination of technology and specialized labor.  Scaling legal work makes it possible to offer high-quality — and quality-controlled — legal services and legal products at a much lower per-unit cost.

Lower per-unit cost is important because it holds out the potential of reaching the very large latent market of ordinary people who struggle to afford a few hours of lawyer’s time to solve many life problems, such as housing, healthcare, employment, insolvency, and old age that are often entangled with law.  Moreover, because of the way that economic inequality intersects with racial inequality, the access to justice gap is particularly acute for minoritized communities. Indeed, it is simply disgraceful that in most jurisdictions over 75% of civil cases involve at least one unrepresented party.  Likewise, greater legal productivity (i.e., the same or better outcome at a lower per-unit cost) is exactly what is needed by large organizational clients, who struggle to navigate the relentless legal complexity of a globalized and interconnected world.

It is doubtful that the legal profession’s productivity challenges will be solved by trying to create super lawyers who have all the depth and skill of traditional legal practice plus a working knowledge of additional productivity-enhancing fields.  That is particularly so at a time when legal educators continue to be asked to do more, do it better, do it faster, and do it cheaper.

Rather, in the decades to come, it is far more likely that the legal profession will be segmented into different roles based upon expertise, some in the realm of substantive law and others in the various functions that enable and support the scaling of legal problem-solving.   By expanding the umbrella of the legal profession to include these critical new functions, we have the opportunity to make the law more accessible and affordable to all citizens.  Already, law schools offer far more academic programs than the traditional JD degree; that trend of teaching law more broadly than to licensed lawyers will only grow and as it does, it will benefit from a robust, fair ecosystem that encourages and supports enrollment.

Fortunately, we don’t have far to look to find a compelling analog.  As shown in the below graphic, less than one in ten healthcare workers are licensed physicians (MD or DO degree).  What has grown up around them is a large number of allied professionals who, through specialized credentials, are able to provide discrete areas of patient care.

[click on to enlarge]
Does anyone seriously believe that patients are better served when MD’s are taking vital signs, drawing blood, operating an MRI machine?  That’s not to say that the medical profession is ideal; but we should recognize that it is often easier for people to get a flu shot than to get help with an eviction notice.  By delegating more common and routine tasks to well-trained but less expensive healthcare workers, healthcare consumers are able to afford more healthcare.  The same ought to be true with law.

A realistic view of legal education

Clearly, law schools have a critical role to play in the future of the legal profession, including continued curricular innovation. That is a tall order, however, given the enormously wide range of preparation that law students have upon entry and the equally wide range of careers they seek upon graduation. Now more than ever, the law school curriculum is a very crowded place where students and faculty stress over the right mix of bar courses, skills courses, and courses that reflect a substantive specialization, such as tax, intellectual property, or environmental law.

Because virtually no part of the law school curriculum is waning in either complexity or importance, most schools will struggle to add  more than a course or two on legal operations, business design, or data analytics – the kinds of courses IFLP provides. Even if a law school wanted to offer these courses, it can be challenging to locate a qualified instructor, as these types of self-taught professionals are in high demand by law firms, legal departments, NewLaw service providers, and legal technology companies.

Both of us have been part of legal education for a long time and we routinely speak with law deans, professors, and many others in the industry. There are more ways to benefit our students than start another debate about the content of the first-year curriculum or cram another required course into the upper-level curriculum.

A more constructive and realistic approach is to supplement the strong education the law schools provide by creating useful resources that enable low-cost self-help by students, faculty, and law school administrators. (Enabling “self-help” by business units is, in fact, one of the most common strategies of legal operations — and wildly popular with internal clients. See, e.g., Post 269.)

Indeed, this directly connects to one of the core insights we learned at IFLP — that the fundamentals of scalable legal products and services can be, and often should be, taught by using a scalable medium, such as asynchronous learning modules.  This approach drops the per-unit cost of education to a very affordable level and enables students to self-pace according to their own schedule. It also makes it possible for law schools to cost-effectively integrate these offerings into students’ professional development, as happened this fall for 100 rising 2Ls and 3Ls at Southern University Law Center.

Southern Law made this investment because, for the last several years, students who participated in IFLP courses and programs were outperforming the job market, as employers valued their technical skills and experience.  See also Post 118 (discussing employer views on interns who completed the IFLP program).

Taking the long view

In the decades to come, we believe that the legal profession is destined to evolve into a multidisciplinary field that includes substantive law and the skills and know-how to scale legal problem-solving.

This transition will occur faster, and ultimately be more successful, if the fundamentals are made available to those with the most gain — those at the very beginning of their working careers.  LSAC will offer IFLP’s Modern Law Practice program — a 10-hour, 5-module online asynchronous course that covers the fundamentals of data, process, design, technology, and business —through its Law Hub platform, which is the main portal for those considering a career in law.

We think that a subset of law students will find IFLP training useful in mapping out their careers and getting traction in a job setting that fits their interests and skills.  In time, these students will influence both peers and law school faculty on the changing nature of the legal market. Likewise, not every student who visits the LSAC website ultimately pursues a JD degree.  We think that IFLP training may also cause a subset to pursue a career as a legal professional who works parallel to substantive law experts in areas such a design, technology, knowledge management, data analytics, or marketing.

Over the course of the next several years, the type of content covered by IFLP coursework may migrate into the law school curriculum at some (or even many?) law schools, particularly through the influence of young alumni returning to their law schools to teach.  Invariably, a few schools will take the lead in carving out new degree programs that correspond to new types of legal professionals. Further, they may gain a competitive advantage, as the benefits of these new methods of practice will have become obvious, including to those with JD degrees.

To speed up the transition, the profession has to start somewhere.  We believe that the combination of LSAC and IFLP is an early and important step in the right direction.