Disruptive Innovation & the AALS Clinical Conference

One of the highlights of last week’s AALS Conference for Clinical Law Teachers was the closing talk by Michele Weise, Senior Fellow, Education at the Clay Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. (A big shout out to Michele Pistone for her role in making that talk happen!) I was superficially familiar with the  disruptive innovation thesis, but Weise’s half-hour talk brought to life its relevance to the current moment in legal education in a way that previous exposure had not. Disruptive innovations that shake up a market or industry often follow a predictable pattern, it is argued. The established players in the market target a higher end client base and compete on quality, improving the product and selling it at a high margin.  This leaves a significant, low-end segment of the market unserved. New entrants provide an inferior product to these unserved consumers, and gradually improve the product and expand their market.  Poof go the established players. Think personal computers, print media, digital cameras, mobile phones . . . . Traditional higher education has long failed to reach a significant segment of potential consumers and the federal government’s shift from financial aid grants to student loans has greatly exacerbated that problem. Arguably, the stage is set for disruptive innovation and on-line technology may be the means to that disruption. The next step of Weise’s analysis was what really captured my attention. She noted that higher education currently serves many functions – transmission of content and certification of knowledge or skills; providing a safe space for young adults to mature socially; networking opportunities, mentoring and tutoring; research & dissemination of scholarship. These functions can be – and are being – disaggregated and provided more cheaply on line. Even the Harvards of the world are potentially at risk, according to Weise. Law schools have traditionally provided a generalist education.  As legal practice becomes more specialized, that educational model arguably serves to mask more specialized functions that could be disaggregated.  This is already being tried in my home state of Washington with our new Limited Licensed Legal Technician (aka/ Triple LT) program.  But lawyers also wouldn’t have to be trained as generalists.  As course offerings expand, the potential for moving away from the traditional generalist education does also.  Already,  this shows up in the transcripts of some of my students who are not necessarily taking the doctrinal courses that were considered foundational in my day.  Does this matter? Before hearing Weise’s talk, during the Law Clinic Directors Workshop, I raised the question “how much doctrine do we need to teach?” Good lawyers, I observed,  have extensive doctrinal knowledge.  (Of course, law schools historically haven’t taught doctrine in connection with the experiential anchor points that many of us need in order to retrieve that knowledge for practice.)  Elliott Milstein later challenged the importance of doctrinal knowledge,  observing that his clinic students handle their cases well regardless of whether they have taken relevant doctrinal courses.  Often true.  And yet . . .  The counter-example that I didn’t have a chance to share:  one of my  students  recognized that we could challenge a new unemployment compensation statute on the ground that the subject was not properly included in the title of the legislation.  A classic case of issue spotting that came about solely because he was taking a Washington State Constitutional Law course.  (I didn’t recognize the issue.) A reminder that the ability to issue spot is valuable.  But  . . . state constitutional law isn’t a classic “foundational” “bar course”. This issue spotting was strictly serendipity – a traditional doctrinally-focused course load would not have accomplished this result. I’m still struggling with the generalist/specialist question.  But it leaves me thinking about the potential for niche curricular innovation aimed at students – often older ones who understand their talents, passions and life goals – who come to law school with a commitment to a practice area like criminal law, immigration law, or business law.

  • Are there enough of those students to justify a legal education targeted at those niches?
  • If so, can we focus their education in a way that really prepares them for their specialty?
  • And, can we at the same time identify a “sweet spot” of “just enough” generalist knowledge to accompany that specialization?  One that provides a foundation for passing the bar exam and the analytical and research skills to master new areas of the law, but does not take up the bulk of a three year curriculum?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  But they strike me as worth investigating.

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