In a legal industry that tends to cling tightly to old ways, the College of Legal Practice Management's Futures Conference brings together innovators, techies, and practice management experts to ask where the practice of law might go next and how.
The eclectic crew gathered October 16 and 17, and included a who's who in the industry of legal practice innovation. Suffolk Law was not only the host, but it had a visible presence throughout the conference. Suffolk Law Professor Andrew Perlman, Associate Dean Ilene Seidman, a current student, and two recent graduates gave presentations about the school's innovative new curricular offerings.
Perlman showed the audience an image of the visionary creator of the case method for training law students, Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law in the late 1800s. He then asked who the crowd thought was the great thinker behind legal pedagogy today, and then replayed the slide of Langdell. "It's still largely the same guy," Perlman said, to laughter from the crowd.
Does this contract need to be slowly hand-crafted?
Perlman argued that law schools tend to train law students to think of their work as "bespoke," building each contract individually, like a tailor making an expensive suit, when increasingly that model is outdated and inefficient. Perlman, director of Suffolk Law's Law Technology and Innovation concentration, then talked about courses at Suffolk designed to move away from the bespoke model using legal document assembly software and legal project management tools.
Cutting and pasting—and making errors
Courtney Burgess '15, who took the school's Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines course, said that as a paralegal in her day job, she found herself using the same documents over and over again, but making errors as she attempted to cut and paste the data and legal language needed for a new client’s document. In other words, the bespoke model Perlman was describing.
Making the most of her training from the class, she used the automated document software HotDocs to create an automated form for a standard motor vehicle complaint. The form, she said, has made document creation far more efficient, less prone to error, and easier to share among attorneys. Burgess said she thinks of automated documents as "power tools", and that, given the small cost to use them, more firms ought to get on board.
When Burgess indicated that her new skills had helped her land an associate position at the firm where she is now a paralegal, the crowd clapped; her landing the job seemed to make sense given her skill in leading the firm toward simple but useful technological solutions: automated pleadings, letters, and other documents.
Describing lawyer timekeeping as an unwieldy, inefficient process, Jeremy Derman '14, who took Suffolk's Legal Project Management and Process Improvement course, spoke about his class project, which sought a way to automate and simplify the complex web of timekeeping. Derman will soon join Ropes & Gray as an associate in New York.
Creating a live legal
document—on your phone
Bill Palin '12, a Cambridge solo practitioner, who won the Suffolk Law/ABA Journal Hackcess to Justice Hackathon event with his PaperHealth app, walked the audience through the app. PaperHealth, available on the iPhone app store, allows users to create and sign legally binding health care proxies and non-binding living wills that can be saved online and sent as needed to medical providers, health care companies, and hospitals and then made accessible to third parties via personal devices. The crowd burst into applause after Palin signed the signature box in the app on his phone and displayed the completed PDF file, announcing that he had "a live legal document."
Palin told the audience that he’s working on an app that allows the attorney working on a contract to indicate whether the language for that particular clause is weak, medium, or strong, allowing even more simplification of the auto-documentation process.
An idea better than
Associate Dean Seidman took on a difficult question: How might law schools adapt to a new legal landscape where there are fewer big firm jobs available for graduates? She explained that Suffolk Law’s team came up with an idea that improves upon law school incubator programs, which currently train recent graduates how to practice law successfully. Those post-graduation incubators, she said, “are an admission of defeat. We wanted a program that could teach students how to be successful lawyers in the three years they are actually in law school.”
Seidman said that Suffolk's program is designed to help to address the justice gap, where 85 percent of people in civil cases represent themselves because they can’t afford an attorney. Why not, she posited, create an on-campus fee-generating law firm to cater to these clients, while students learn how to run the practice effectively and sustainably.
Thus was born Suffolk Law's Accelerator Program, she explained, allowing the school to help fight the justice gap while training students to run sustainable firms dealing with legal problems like consumer fraud, employee wage issues, and landlord tenant/housing cases. The Accelerator, she said, brings to the law school an element of real-world learning that you just don’t see at most law school’s--issues like marketing, case-selection, fees, determining market need, evaluating whether to expand the practice, and management efficiencies.