Advice for Students Entering Law School in 2015

Recently I read through an engaging thread on LinkedIn that asks: “What’s one piece of advice you’d give yourself upon entering law school this year?”

I was impressed by how many Queen’s alumni reached out with candid and honest advice. Many commenters focus on tried and true advice for law school success: Students who listen, prepare for class, and work hard will often be rewarded with good grades. Demonstrating mastery with good grades in law school has and always will be impressive.


I think that students entering the class of 2019 should also question whether good grades should be their goal. If I could, I’d ask my 1L self to challenge the timeless advice for success in law school. What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers, and risk takers.
What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers and risk takers
  
Being an expert at grinding the grist of daily readings and lecture will not help us move forward or create new ways of delivering legal services. Specifically, the legal services that most Canadians need but can’t afford.

After leaving the hallways of law school, I recognize the many ways we’re reinforcing the myth that lawyers can do it all on our own. Law school rewards students, for example, who contribute modestly, dedicate themselves to individual study, and perform better than the competition.

When applied to client service, that model creates capable practitioners who’ve learned to treat every problem as unique. That time-intensive method promotes high quality, but comes at a high cost. 

Why are we focused on graduating students with skills that helped 20th century lawyers succeed, when skills like systems-thinking, project management, and IT leadership will help 21st century lawyers succeed?

Instead of teaching students to challenge, question, and evolve methods we’re sending the message that evolution isn’t necessary. Our last major innovation was inspired by Socrates: asking students questions in class rather than lecturing. We’re not even measuring our learning outcomes: are we getting better at preparing students for practice, or worse? 

I say this all in hindsight. I entered law school after the 2008 financial crisis and hoped that things would go back to the way they were. Like many students, I liked how timeless law seemed. I naively thought law was a sure and steady path to success. 

After seeing so many capable classmates graduate and struggle to find employment, my perspective has changed. Hardworking people who will make great lawyers can’t find work, because the old ways are no longer affordable. I see now that the only way to success is to stray from that well-worn path, to explore other avenues, and to embrace change. 

I wish all the students accepting offers at law school this year the best of success. Please comment or reach out through my contact form if you have questions or want to talk about law school.

What Law Students Missed at #LegalLean Toronto

Legal innovation was brewing at the MaRS Discovery District this past Saturday, February 21st, 2015 at Toronto’s #LegalLean event. Over 70 attendees arrived to participate in “unconference” sessions moderated by MaRS’s Aron Solomon and Cognition LLP’s Jason Moyse.

The main purpose of the event: surveying the legal innovation landscape, with a focus on applying “lean” (waste-cutting and value-adding) principles to legal services.  The event played out in both real-time and on Twitter.

As a recent graduate, I couldn’t help but notice that there were not many law students at the event. The strongest law school turnout was from Michigan State University (MSU)’s ReInvent Law Laboratory. The sessions that followed were a glimpse at the legal landscape law students will soon find themselves in. This article is a quick summary of what law students missed: the people, the ideas, and the inspiration.

MaRS Discovery District

Who was there?

The only thing more important than the ideas discussed at the unconference were the people and interests represented there. If there was one thing law students missed at #LegalLean, it was the chance to meet and network with people who are solving tomorrow’s legal challenges.

The #LegalLean session leaders included Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Ken Grady, Proskauer e-Discovery’s Dera Nevin, and Clio’s Joshua Lenon. If law students haven’t heard about new-model law firms, e-discovery services, or cloud-based practice management platforms, Ken, Dera, and Josh provided great introductions. (For anyone looking for more resources on these topics, reach out in the comments or through my contact form and I’ll send suggestions.)

The keynote speech was delivered by Mitch Kowalski, author of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. Mitch’s book should be required reading in law school. It was an eye-opener for me when I first read it, as a novella-style description of what law firms might look like one day. Other legal celebrities present included Peter Carayiannis, founder of Conduit Law and the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Lawyer family of publications Gail J. Cohen. The ROSS founders were also there, the entrepreneurs using IBM’s Watson to perform legal research.

As for the audience, a show of hands revealed that about 70% were lawyers, 15% entrepreneurs, and 15% non-legal:

If you didn’t get a chance to go and would like a survey of the people who were there, the Twitter feed #LegalLean shows who was tweeting during the event.

Why was it special?

The #LegalLean conference featured some powerful ideas:

  • The way the event was organized “unconference style” meant that people off-site could follow along via the Twitter hashtag feed. Although not as participant-driven as it could have been, audience members could still tweet favourite quotes and moments from the conference. Particularly diligent attendees like Knowledge Management Consultant Connie Crosby helped create a written record of the presentations in digestible 140-character snippets. This isn’t a new trend, but it set the theme for the day. Conferences used to be done the same way legal advice was—advice would be thrown out into the audience and lost unless someone made it available on paper. Not any more. #LegalLean was captured on video, by live tweet, and through post-event blog articles like this one.
  • In a similar vein, Dera Nevin’s talk described that the main sticking point for legal innovation was the lack of categorization. Our transition from unstructured legal “stories” to structured searchable data has been painfully slow. Why are our judicial decisions still written in prose? Why are they not broken down by independent and dependent variable? Better data would allow better predictions, more certainty, and easier legal compliance. Law students should think about how they are capturing data at their future firms. Are they creating organizational learning, or forcing someone else to repeat the same work in the future?
  • Legal advice tends to be equally unstructured. Ken Grady described his visits to law firms all over the world, where he would ask for the likelihood of success on trademark litigation. The answer would invariably be “about 50/50.” Better data capture and processes in law firms should allow more accurate predictions. As lawyers, we need to step out of the grey and add value by providing more certainty for our clients.
  • Certainty and consistency brings us to one of the main ideas at #LegalLean. Jayson Moyse described “lean six sigma” as reducing the manufacturing process error rate below 3.4 defects per one million occurrences. That is an incredible achievement for manufacturing firms, often demanded in high-risk, high-value industries like aerospace. What if we brought that level of certainty to law? Through lean processes (a waste-cutting and value-adding discipline) it could be possible.

For a broader survey of the moments and ideas expressed at #LegalLean, the Canadian Lawyer published a tweet stream summary, and David Curle from Thomson Reuters published an excellent report here.

What was inspirational?

The people and ideas at #LegalLean were no doubt engaging. The best part was the inspiration. Law students and recent graduates like myself would have left the day feeling like we were entering world of opportunity. While walking down College Street in the snow, I couldn’t help but feel like it is the perfect time to be in (or graduating from) law school.

Right here in Toronto, there are groups working to make legal services more accessible, more predictable, and more useful for clients. Venture capital investment in legal startups is heating up.

Innovation centers like MaRS in Toronto and Communitech in Waterloo are close at hand. Exciting ventures like the IBM-Watson powered ROSS are evidence that beyond-the-edge legal startups can be created in Toronto. The legal innovation culture in Canada is still nascent. We don’t yet have institutions preaching this methodology, although Lakehead’s new law school is challenging the status quo, and the LPP program is changing the way lawyers are educated. 

We ended the event with an open Q&A. I asked the audience what inspired them about the conference; what idea they planned to take action on. The only answer from the crowd was an American law student from Michigan’s ReInvent Law Program. I think that speaks volumes.

Personally I’d like to see Canada lead the North American legal innovation sector. I didn’t get a chance to share my own inspiration from the event, but ask me and I’ll tell you. I came away from #LegalLean thinking differently, and I’m planning on shaking up the legal industry in my own way over the next few years.

Please get in touch if you’d like to share ideas, ask questions or collaborate. Thanks for reading.

#LegalLean Photo Gallery