Why Law Students Should Be Thinking About Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Legal Services

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by Professor Renee Newman Knake, Michigan State University College of Law

Legal expertise no longer is sufficient to cultivate a rewarding and meaningful career in the law. All the legal knowledge in the world is of little value if clients cannot access it.

One of the most pressing issues facing the profession in the 21stcentury is the “justice gap”: millions of people who need legal representation cannot afford or access a lawyer. The overwhelming majority of this country goes without much-needed legal help because they simply cannot afford to pay a lawyer three-figures-per-hour for multiple hours, but they also do not qualify for the limited legal aid programs available. The legal profession faces a delivery problem—we have failed to develop sustainable models for delivering legal services that are affordable, accessible and, importantly, adopted by clients who utilize them on a regular, sustained basis.

Meanwhile, thousands of lawyers are unemployed, and law schools continue to graduate new attorneys at record levels. For these attorneys, individuals in the gap represent an opportunity—an enormous untapped market. Thus the legal profession also faces a matching problem—we struggle to pair appropriately qualified lawyers with clients who need them.

These delivery and matching problems are not new, but they have become particularly acute given the recent convergence of economic pressures, global competition, and technological advances. Law schools excel at producing legal experts, but the delivery and matching problems faced by the profession largely go ignored by legal education. Students are left to their own resources. The luckiest come to law school with a background in innovation and entrepreneurship and others might obtain a joint degree that exposes them to these ideas. But this is not the case for most.
Our challenge is to create better delivery models that match appropriately qualified lawyers with the clients who need them. To find a solution, we need fuel to entrepreneurship and innovation in legal services.

Where do we start? At Michigan State University College of Law, for example, we recently launched ReInvent Law (www.ReInventLaw.com)—a law laboratory devoted to technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship in legal services. Our students can take courses focused on law practice innovation and entrepreneurial lawyering (i.e. tools for lawyers to become entrepreneurs, not merely advise them). Students from other law schools can join us for our 21st Century Law Practice Summer Program in London (www.21stCenturyLawPractice.com), an intensivetwo-week study of new delivery models and the technology-infused law jobs of the future.

A handful of other law schools also are beginning to recognize the importance of these sorts of classes within the curriculum. For students not at these schools, however, there are ways to be exposed to entrepreneurship and law practice innovation beyond the classroom. Here are a few ideas:

Read.According to Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, everyone was born an entrepreneur. Even if you have no interest in starting your own business, knowledge of entrepreneurial skills can help you navigate toward a more rewarding and meaningful career. Pick up a copy of Hoffman’sThe Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. Another recommended read for nurturing the inner-entrepreneur is Daniel Pink’sA Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Although Pink predicts that the future for left-brained, analytical lawyers looks rather bleak, he offers encouraging guidance on how we left-brainers can embrace and capitalize on what he calls the coming “Conceptual Age.”

Follow.A number of blogs track innovation and technology development in legal services. Follow them regularly, and you’ll quickly become well-versed in the leading issues. LegalFutures (www.LegalFutures.co.uk) covers the United Kingdom’s incredible boom of “alternative business structures” in the wake of regulatory liberalization under the Legal Services Act. Law21 (www.law21.ca) focuses heavily on innovation in law practice, with thoughtful posts forecasting the future for lawyers and providing the latest news on all things related to law, technology, and new legal services markets. The eLawyering Blog (www.elawyeringredux.com) addresses all elements of virtual law practice, including law startups, marketing online legal services, and offering legal advice online. Computational Legal Studies blog (www.computationallegalstudies.com) curates an array of resources to inform and inspire on law, computational and complex systems, and beyond.

Explore. Take a look at some of the newest innovators and entrepreneurs on the legal services scene. LegalZoom (www.legalzoom) and RocketLawyer (www.rocketlawyer.com) offer online forms and services. LawGives (www.lawgives.com), LawPivot (www.lawpivot.com), and LawZam (www.lawzam.com) aim to solve the matching problem in unique ways by connecting lawyers with those who need them. Docracy (www.docracy.com), a recent startup that emerged from a NYC TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, allows users to locate, edit, and execute electronic, crowd-sourced legal documents—for free. If you happen to be in Santa Monica, California, grab a cup of coffee at Legal Grind (www.legalgrind.com), where you will find lawyers in a community café setting. Chicago’s Legal Café (www.chicagoslegalcafe.com) provides a similar service. LegalForce (www.legalforcelaw.com) is opening a Palo Alto store, selling computer tablets and connecting customers to legal services. In the United Kingdom, businesses like Legal365 (www.Legal365.com) and Riverview Law (www.riverviewlaw.com) are trying to meet the legal needs of those in the gap by offering free and low cost services online. Other British companies are focused on personal delivery. For example, you can connect with a lawyer while picking up a newspaper at the WHSmith through a QualitySolicitors kiosk (www.qualitysolicitors.com), or while shopping and banking with the Co-operative (www.co-operative.coop).

Learn. Learning new technology is a great way to foster one’s entrepreneurial and innovative nature. Want to build your own website? Visit Codecademy (www.codecademy.com), which makes learning to code simple, fun, and interactive. Or search YouTube for instruction on WordPress, website hosting, and basic HTML coding. Curious about ways in which others have used technology to innovate law practice? Watch the six-minute LexThink.1 videos (www.pointonelaw.com/videos) from the 2012 American Bar Association Tech Show.

Pitch. Spend a weekend inventing new models for legal services delivery and pitch the business plan to competition judges at a Startup Weekend (startupweekend.org), where winners leave with their startup launched. Startup Weekends have been held in over 600 cities around the world, and more than 300 are planned for the coming months. Or crowd-source seed money for your imaginative legal services idea at Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), an online platform for funding creative projects.

The time has come for legal services to be affordable, accessible, and adopted widely. The market for law and technology has been described as an “unpopulated multi-billion dollar industry.” The question for today’s law students is whether they will be left behind as others fill the gap, or whether they will seize the opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship, pioneer new legal services delivery models, and help find a solution.


Professor Renee Newman Knake is an Associate Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Lawand Co-Director of ReInvent Law (www.ReInventLaw.com). She also co-directs the 21st Century Law Practice Summer Program in London (www.21stcenturylawpractice.com), a two-week intensive study of innovation and entrepreneurship in legal services. Professor Knake received her J.D. from The University of Chicago Law School. Her scholarly interests include the intersection between the First Amendment and the law of lawyering, innovation in the delivery of legal services, and regulation of the profession. She recently has turned her energies to considering ways in which law, technology, and social media can democratize the delivery of legal services and enhance the practice of law. Professor Knake frequently speaks nationally and internationally about her research and has published numerous articles related to these topics, including Democratizing the Delivery of Legal Services, 73 Ohio State Law Journal 1 (2012).

© 2012 Renee Newman Knake


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