The College of Law Practice Management’s 2014 Futures Conference gathered more than 100 of the world’s leading authorities on the evolving practice of law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and set them to work. Here are my five key takeaways from the year’s most impressive legal market conference.
1. The Trailblazer. Leading off the conference was keynote speaker Tom Sager, the legendary general counsel of DuPont who pioneered the DuPont Legal Model for anticipating, managing and executing his company’s legal issues. Sager, who recently stepped down from his longtime position to join Ballard Spahr, recounted the origins of the model and its core metrics (KPIs, compliance, efficiency and “best in class” status) that still resonate today.
Sager emphasized the model’s “fixation and focus” on using metrics, necessary to provide data that prove innovations are working and to lend credibility to the in-house team’s efforts among skeptics in the corporation. Today, the model has evolved to incorporate new DuPont Legal Lean Six criteria: agility, productivity and what Sager called specificity (which includes defining value, measuring outcomes and reducing risk).
It was startling to realize that Sager’s efforts began in 1992, virtually the Mesozoic Era in the development of sophisticated legal practices and processes. The DuPont Legal Model had virtually no competition for years, something that should remind today’s NewLaw providers that isolation is often the cost of innovation in this industry. And Sager had a sharp warning for the legal profession generally: “Non-lawyers” are poised to outnumber lawyers in legal market change discussions, and are critical (along with non-practicing lawyers) to the communication and effective implementation of new systems.
2. The Innovators. Three of the conference’s speakers demonstrated where the trail Sager helped blaze is leading. Abe Geiger, CEO of tablet-based contract sensation Shake, talked about the immense potential of “TinyLaw,” transactions that fall below the financial threshold for lawyers’ attention. He is squarely focused on consumers of legal products and strives to make everything “faster, cheaper, easier and prettier” for them. (The last is no joke: Shake takes user design seriously.) Geiger talked about “leapfrog” technologies that allowed modern users to access legal services in nontraditional ways. “If we can scale what lawyers do [and] use tech more effectively,” he said, “[there’s a] huge market that could be serviced, if the model was better.”
Michael Mills, CEO of Neota Logic, was perhaps the conference’s most frequently invoked name, as his expert application for answering legal and regulatory questions was adopted by many brainstormed startups (see No. 3 below). Expert systems, Mills explained, are everywhere, including the deceptively simple computer programs that do your taxes for you. Law is a series of rules, and rules can be coded. Why should we code law? Mills’s answer: Because it’s simply wrong that there is such a vast unmet need for legal services. Machine learning and predictive coding in e-discovery are only the beginning of technology’s impact on the legal system: Law is the ultimate digital product, and this will be borne out in time.
William Palin, a family lawyer in Cambridge, Mass., and a recent graduate of Suffolk Law School, made the biggest splash with a demonstration of PaperHealth, an iOS app that he built for creating a binding health-care directive on a mobile device. Palin, whose self-taught coding expertise was only months old when he created PaperHealth, won the ABA’s first Legal Hackathon (also held at Suffolk Law this past August) and is hard at work on more applications. The audience, made up of many of the leading lights in law practice management, was visibly impressed with the ease, speed and simplicity of PaperHealth (available free in the App Store).
3. The Shark Tank. The organizers of this year’s Futures Conference (Lisa Damon of Seyfarth Shaw, Susan Saltonstall Duncan of RainMaking Oasis, and Deborah McMurray of ContentPilot) hit the creativity jackpot. They divided attendees into 10 breakout groups and directed them to come up with ideas for an innovative new product or service to improve the effectiveness of some aspect of legal services delivery. Even better, waiting for the groups was a team of “Shark Tank-style” judges — Susan Hackett of Legal Executive Leadership, Josh Kubicki of the Legal Transformation Institute, and innovative Boston lawyer Christopher Marsten — ready to deal out real-world skepticism.
Many of the groups, completely independent of each other, came up with solutions to improve access to justice for lower- and middle-income people who cannot afford a lawyer’s help. These ranged from consumer-accessible kiosks to triage-style lead generation to a diagnostic tool to identify unrecognized legal needs. The judges rightly questioned many of these ideas on the grounds of financing issues, lawyer-centrism, or simply creating more work for an overburdened system. These reality checks, delivered with an unusual degree of directness, represented a refreshing change from the usual “brainstorming” of lovely ideas that wouldn’t really function in the real world.
The winning entry was an original solution to an under-publicized problem: the massive shortage of translation services in courthouses. The Courthouse Online Real-Time Translation Service, as presented by group spokesperson Prof. Andrew Perlman of Suffolk Law, offered a realistic solution by way of remote access to translators who could patch in to a hearing and provide translations effectively and affordably. The runner-up prize went to an initiative called Tenant Storm, an online service for tenants that combined landlord ratings, regulatory compliance and dispute resolution in an accessible package for the underserved landlord-tenant area of law: “Zillow” plus legal information and compliance, as presenters Liam Brown of Elevate Legal Services and John Alber of Bryan Cave described it.
4. The Host Law School. Suffolk University Law School became the latest legal educator to host the College’s Futures Conference, and its first appearance in the role seems unlikely to be its last. The school took the opportunity to showcase for the high-powered audience some of its many efforts to rethink and reconfigure the legal education process. (Disclosure: I hold the position of Legal Strategist in Residence at Suffolk Law and, along with Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems, serve as Co-Chair of the school’s Institute for Law Practice Technology and Innovation. Marc and I each teach a course at Suffolk: Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines, and 21st-Century Lawyering, respectively.)
Dean Camille Nelson addressed the attendees concerning the school’s focus on filling both the practice gap (between law school and law practice) and the justice gap (between everyday consumers and the legal system). Assistant Dean Ilene Seidman described Suffolk’s Accelerator to Practice Program, a three-year course of study and practice that prepares grads to join or start law practices that serve average-income individuals and families. The program actually includes a fee-generating law firm within the law school to train students to be competent lawyers within three years.
Prof. Perlman, who heads the LPTI Institute, reminded the audience that very little has changed about legal education since the days of Christopher Langdell: “We still train law students to look backward, for bespoke legal work; that’s not how most legal services are delivered today.” In addition to the school’s other projects, the Institute partnered with Kia Motors in-house counsel D. Casey Flaherty to create an online and widely available version of Flaherty’s Legal Tech Audit. (Versions for legal businesses and a free version for law schools are available here.)
Next year’s host, Chicago-Kent College of Law, looks ready to take the baton from Suffolk and continue to further and publicize the legal education reform process
5. The Focus on the User. Most legal conferences, perhaps unsurprisingly, are about lawyers, even those that are geared toward anticipating and adjusting to the future. The standout feature of the 2014 Futures Conference, for me, was the unrelenting focus on legal system users, including both current clients and potential recipients of legal assistance. Lawyers are positioned as one source, perhaps even the best and most appropriate source, of legal services, but by no means are we the only one (and, as I’ve argued recently, perhaps a far more peripheral source than we like to imagine).
The advantage of the Shark Tank format was not only to challenge attendees to come up with solutions to improve user access to and experience with the legal system, but also to put those ideas through rigorous testing. We’re now past the point when good ideas and good intentions are good enough to make the legal system more useable; we need to start shipping. We need working deliverables, right now, to make the present system function more effectively and to throw open the doors to that system and welcome many more people and businesses than it can currently accommodate. The skeptical demands of the Shark Tank judges reflect what should be a greater level of rigor within the profession about what needs to be done.
From Tom Sager’s keynote through the presentations of guest speakers to the many suggestions for better legal systems from the attendees, the relentless focus of the 2014 Futures Conference was on the client, or the buyer, or the user, or the untapped market of legal needs and opportunities. That perspective was powerful, valuable and overdue. Here’s hoping we get much more of it in the months and years to come.
Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients and legal organizations. You can follow him on Twitter at @jordan_law21.