Disrupting Law School

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In a new whitepaper, Disrupting Law School, Michael B. Horn and I explore various aspects of disruption in the legal services sector with an eye toward how law schools can respond proactively. As we state in the whitepaper, it is clear to us that law schools need to change. But many in the academy believe that we are insulated from disruption because of regulatory protections. In our view, reliance on this regulatory scheme for protection is misguided.

Heavily regulated industries can be disrupted. The taxi industry provides an example. Uber’s novel business model, which intentionally by-passed regulators, has been embraced by customers, investors, and drivers. As we have seen in other industries, once innovations like this accumulate sufficient market support, the regulations will ultimately be loosened to accommodate them.

It is no surprise, then, to see changes in the regulations affecting both lawyers and law schools. Horn and I identify at least three ways that regulations are opening up.

First, advances in technology are altering the traditional legal services value network. For decades lawyers have provided expensive customized solutions for each individual client. Now, the industry is seeing technological innovations bring more standardized, systematized, and, in some instances, commoditized offerings to the market. The rise of LegalZoom is an example of this kind of disruption. LegalZoomhasbeen challenged on regulatory grounds; the claims were that it was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. LegalZoom won or settled the court challenges. Those successes have motivated it to expand upmarket, as is typical of disruptors.

Second, technological developments are breaking down the traditional rationale—the protection of the public—for granting lawyers a monopoly on the practice of law. State regulators of bar licensure are taking note. States are beginning to experiment with providing non-JDs limited licenses to provide legal services that until now only JDs could provide.

The State of Washington provides the first example.  It recently licensed legal technicians—non-JDs who are specially trained to advise clients in a limited practice area, in this case family law. Akin to a nurse practitioner, a limited license legal technician (LLLT) can perform many of the functions that JDs traditionally performed, including consulting and advising, completing and filing necessary legal documentation, and helping clients understand and navigate a complicated family law court system. Only two years old, this new model is already gaining traction outside of Washington; the bars in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Utah, are each considering similar limited licensing options to authorize non-lawyer practitioners to practice in limited capacities in their states.

Finally, on top of the changes coming about through technological innovations and new licensing models, higher education itself is also seeing a variety of potential disruptors emerge, all powered at least in part through online learning. The startups can transform higher education by offering programs that are more flexible, more convenient and, often, more affordable than programs offered in the traditional higher education model. And because they are able to take advantage of a variety of new technologies, business models and teaching pedagogies, these players are positioning themselves to change the status quo in higher education. Here again, law schools may feel protected from the disruption that is coming toward the universities in which we sit because of strict ABA accreditation standards that limit online competition. But here, too, we warn against becoming too complacent when relying on existing regulatory protections.

The ABA recently granted a variance to Mitchell Hamline Law School to offer a blended online, in-person JD program. This acceptance of online learning within the JD, coupled with the ABA’s push for the adoption of learning outcomes and formative assessment, suggest that efforts to innovate using online technologies will find support by accreditors. And students may find online programs attractive as well. Judging from its first class, there is pent-up demand for such an offering; the students who enrolled in Mitchell Hamline’s blended program had higher predictors of success (LSAT and undergraduate GPA) than the class of students enrolled in the live JD program. The program’s former dean, Eric Janus, told me that students in the blended program even expressed gratitude to the school for offering them an opportunity to learn the law. That’s because before this offering became available, the alternative was nothing at all.

Ultimately, we in the legal academy must acknowledge that we are exposed to the same form of competition that has lead to the devastation of entire industries. And then act proactively to create an improved educational environment for the legal services industry.

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