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

4 Things I Learned Reading My Law School Admission Essay

Before I graduated law school, I asked the admissions coordinator for a copy of my law school admission essay. My request came as a surprise.

“Not many people ask to see those,” she said. “Are you okay?”

I told her not to worry. I was just wondering why I originally applied to law school. The thought came to me after reading an article that compared University of Toronto law school admission essays to what those eventual lawyers really did. The article contrasts high ideals with “the reality” in large corporate law firms.

“Did my motivations change?” I wondered.

When I looked through the cloud for my old application essay, I couldn’t find it. Somewhere in the five years, two laptops, and multiple cloud services I used since applying it had gotten lost. Our administrator was kind enough to give me a copy. Reading my law school application essay was one of the most important things I did before graduating.

desktop

For anyone unfamiliar with law school, the admissions essay or “personal statement” is every applicant’s one chance to tell their story. It’s completely unstructured, often with no page limits or guidelines. The blank page stares back and says, “Tell me about yourself. Why do you want to go to law school?”

After half a decade, I didn’t expect my application essay to still ring true. A lot happened in the five years since I had applied. Wikileaks was just unfolding. Snowden. The Boston bombings. China also surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. It’s hard to say how much those events influenced me. In that time I had also completed two graduate-level degrees, made mistakes, and learned a lot about myself.

When I read my law school application essay I learned four things:

  1. Passion is about action. When I wrote that original essay, there were a lot of things I could have talked about. I could have talked about big issues, world events, or the importance of a legal education. My passion really shone through when I talked about action. What I did spoke far louder than anything I could have said. Taking on early roles as a community leader, mediator, researcher, and writer showed I already had a passion for doing what lawyers do–even if I didn’t really know what it was like to be a lawyer.
  2. Vulnerability is as important as strength. Law school admission essays can be awful to read. It can be very difficult to read someone else promote themselves. When all that’s presented is strength, we want to turn away because it’s not real.  After reading my essay, I thought the best part was my struggle (and eventual failure) to learn Japanese. Addressing failure helps us stay human. It helps us show our resiliency. And it makes us trustworthy. Nobody is perfect, and I’m glad I didn’t try to be.
  3. The only way to know “what you want to do next” is past experience. Ever heard someone complain that they’re not sure what they want to do for an education, a career, or a next move? That was me before I came to law school. I wasn’t sure if law was really for me, and my uncertainty comes through in my writing. The only information I was proceeding on was from past experiences. Not everyone has known what they want to do since they were born. I certainly didn’t. For most of us, “what to do next” comes from past experience. We need to constantly try new things to learn about ourselves to calibrate our compass for the way forward.
  4. Our most difficult moments define us and refine us. Strangely enough, I was encouraged to become a lawyer by my first tough experience in university. I had to find an apartment off-campus when all my friends were moving into residence; I had forgotten to hand in my housing forms on time. Two things happened after I moved into an apartment off-campus: (a) I became much more social and outgoing on campus. (b) I found out how to break my lease legally by researching the Residential Tenancies Act. That early experience could have made me give up. I could have stayed isolated off campus and stayed put. Instead, the experience forced me to grow.

After reading the essay, I was relieved to learn my motivations for going to law school hadn’t changed. I still want to use law to be a leader in my community.

If you’re in law school, I highly recommend you read your admission essay before you leave. It never hurts to re-calibrate your reasons for pursuing a long-term commitment. If you’re not in law school, but you’re thinking about committing to something or someone or somewhere for years, you should try writing a personal statement.

Leave a comment if you do read your admission essay. What does it say?

This Law Firm Recruiter Inspired Me to Be a Better Lawyer

Everybody has heroes growing up. By the time you’ve made it through formal education and made it into the working world, chances are you’ve had a few people help you get there. My story has been no different.

After reflecting on the journey, there are a few people I’d like to recognize as exceptional at what they do.  This is the first article in a series on people who inspired me to be a better lawyer before I graduated law school: Gail Wong, Director of Student Programs (Ontario) at McCarthy Tetrault LLP.

During law school most students reach out to at least one law firm recruiter. That means that every recruiter deals with thousands of messages, enquiries, and applications every year. Being a Regional Director of one of Canada’s largest law firms, I’m sure that was no less true for Gail Wong.

Gail first wowed me because she was able to remember my name and the events I had previously attended despite hosting, messaging, and meeting hundreds of candidates every month. Remembering names seems trivial, but it made Gail instantly stand out.

That personal approach extended to her email responsiveness and event attendance. Gail responded to email follow-ups very quickly. It was also remarkable that she showed up personally to most recruitment events. Before she knew whether we were VIP’s, her attendance in person sent a strong message that we were. As a future lawyer I plan to make my clients, colleagues and contacts feel important in the same way.

Meeting

Ultimately I failed to make it to the final interview stage at Gail’s firm, but afterwards she agreed to provide one-on-one feedback that left a lasting impression. Even though I was no longer a candidate, she took the time to give important (and honest) feedback that I needed to hear. That tough conversation helped me grow—and ultimately succeed—in my legal job search. It was also a great example where honest post-project feedback helped make a better result possible.

The ways we act send a message to others. Gail’s quick responses, memory for names, and front-line presence set an early example to me how to treat potential clients. Despite the recruitment process now being many months behind me, it goes to show that great impressions last. Thanks for the inspiration, Gail.

PS Do you have someone who inspired you to get where you are? If so, please let me know in the comments below. Any thoughts or stories are welcome.

Failure Should Be a Graduation Requirement

Every university and high-school student should be required to fail one course before graduating.

It’s easy to focus on achievement, and reward those who meet (or exceed) expectations of performance.  Our school system feeds its success obsession using standardized tests, pass rates, and college admissions as a measurement of its effectiveness.

The problem is that many of the highest achievers graduate without ever being challenged.  They never learn how to take risks and fail.

Failure Hitting the Ground

The pressure to have high pass rates have made it tough to actually fail in Ontario high schools.  I’m not saying we should celebrate the failure to show up to class, or failure from a total lack of effort.

Real failure is about trying your hardest, and still not making it.

If every student were challenged to that level, we’d have the opportunity to teach real life lessons.  How to ask for help.  How to come to terms with your weaknesses.  How to push on when you feel like giving up.

With admission averages to many competitive Ontario university programs continuing the “upward spiral” that began over a decade ago, it’s no wonder students are allergic to failure.

At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, you only have a 40% chance of receiving an admission offer to civil, mechanical, or software engineering if your high-school grade point average (GPA) is between 85 and 90%.  If your GPA is between 91 and 95%, the probability of being admitted jumps to 85%.

I’m not an engineer, and frankly, I would have never been able to make into a program at Waterloo if I had applied.  Even with such high admission averages, Waterloo was failing an average of 20% of its first-year engineering classes.  This bothered people so much they suggested making changes to the first-year curriculum in 2010.

As a residence don for 1st year engineers at Waterloo, I witnessed first-hand what failure would do to some of those 18-year olds.  Adult responsibility for their own learning hit many of them like a truck.  Some reacted by doubling down and studying seriously for the first time in their lives.  Others escaped into virtual worlds online.

For those of us who overcame it, failure was the best lesson of our lives.  My first lesson with failure didn’t come until I took a Japanese course for credit, and was blown out of the water by classmates who had studied it as a second language in Hong Kong and China.  Failing test after test taught me how to push myself harder, to ask for help, and how to take responsibility for something marked with the letter “F.”

If every school required students to fail at least one course, it would make failing okay.  Students would be encouraged to take risks, and get seriously challenged without the risk of their average slipping to an unacceptable 89%.

To have the F count as course credit, the student should have to (1) reflect on why the failure happened, (2) make a plan to overcome it by using all the resources at their disposal, (3) develop a “plan B” if their first plan doesn’t work, (4) follow through with the plan, and (5) reflect on the experience.

What do you think?  Would this ever work?  Would this have enriched your overall experience in school, or should we wait until people graduate before they’re allowed to fail?

TEAMwork: Interdisciplinary Learning at its Finest

April 1st 2013 marks the end of my eight-month experience in the Technology Engineering And Management (TEAM) course at Queen’s University.

Every law school should have a course like TEAM.  It allows law students to work with engineering and management students, and trains legal minds to look for ways they can add value in real-world projects.

2013-02-15 17.15.57

What is TEAM?

TEAM is an interdisciplinary project course.  Senior students enrol in the course from chemical engineering, commerce, and law.  Each student begins the term by bidding on projects proposed by industry partners across Canada and the United States.

Students are matched to projects based on their interest and experience.  Teams of 3-5 students are formed for each project.  The TEAM class runs anywhere from 18 to 20 projects a year.

Former projects have included the retrofit of a manufacturing plant, innovative carbon capture processes, feasibility of a new oil pipeline upgrader design, geothermal energy production, and environmentally friendly oil sands worker housing.

How did TEAM start?

The TEAM course was designed by Barrie Jackson , an ex-Shell employee and Queen’s Adjunct Associate Professor, in 1995.  He realized that engineers never work in isolation, and should learn the business and legal side of their work.

TEAM’s great work continues thanks to the tireless efforts of Dave Mody, an Adjunct Lecturer and “Engineer in Residence” at the Chemical Engineering Faculty at Queen’s.  Dave meets with student teams weekly to guide and mentor student groups, and to share his 17 years of engineering and design process experience.

What was my experience like?

I was lucky to be matched with a fantastic client known in the energy industry worldwide.  Their head office in Canada is in Calgary, so our team was flown out to get briefed on our project in November 2012.  Next week, on April 2nd we’ll present our final presentation and report.

Our project is a concept design for an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable remote housing unit for resource development workers.  We had a few different personality types and learning styles on our team.  It was a great leadership experience.

Have you ever had an interdisciplinary project that inspired you, or taught you things you didn’t expect?  Post it in the comments.

The legal angle of my project was on the aboriginal consultation requirements, and the environmental-regulatory requirements for an energy development project.  The nature of the project touched many areas of law, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

 

Don’t Bring Your Laptop to Class

I don’t know when it happened, but law lectures have lost their terrifying charm.  In my experience, students’ unwillingness to speak up—and most teachers’ merciful unwillingness to demand answers—has replaced the Socratic method with more passive classroom learning.

Without that pressure, the need to thoroughly prepare  for the next day’s lecture has faded away.  Safely nuzzled into laptops, my 60+ fellow students can follow along with our lecture using a PowerPoint slide presentation, waiting for each legal issue to be pointed out.

The proud and the few who do prepare may be disappointed to find there is no class discussion they can use to flex their arguments.  Their interpretations are never challenged or questioned.

Law school doesn’t have to be like that.  Laptop learning can be done at home.  The classroom should be for vigorous advocacy and engagement with the material.

The Socratic Method

Do we have to go back to “Paper Chase”-style call and answer in class?  No, I don’t think so, even though it has its merits.  Being put on the spot, thinking on your feet, and applying the law to unpredictable questions are a great foundation for future skills as an advocate.

What’s missing is a greater emphasis on legal problem solving, instead of the more narrowly focused case method.  Is it possible to have it both ways?

I’d like to ask legal teachers to consider taking a new approach.  Here are some elements I’d like to see in my next lecture:

  1. Demand preparedness: ask students who aren’t prepared to leave
  2. Provide—or work with students to develop—materials to learn doctrinal fundamentals at home, so people don’t come to class to type a transcript of your lecture
  3. Focus on practical problems in class.  Start the lecture with an interesting exam-style fact pattern.  Use that as a lead-in to the area of law the students are about to spend four to eight months investigating.  Talk strategy.  Talk about what the case means for future litigants.  Refer back to the case as a concrete example for core concepts.
  4. Draw out quiet participants.  Reward participation.
  5. Make the back row of students sit in the front row.
  6. Ask that laptops be shut, bowed down, or left at home.  If students are dependent on typing what you are saying in class, they didn’t read the material.

Do you have a Professor or instructor who teaches like this?  Let me know in the comments below. I’ve met a few, but it isn’t the norm.

We shouldn’t leave law school without speaking up, advocating for a position, or making eye contact.  For our future clients, let’s try leaving our laptop at home.

The Innovative Advocate: Canada’s Legal Future

The way legal services are delivered in Canada is changing.  Increased competition and a demand for lower prices has pressured law firms to slow hiring and deliver their services more efficiently.  After finishing my first year at Queen’s Law I started thinking about how law students can help firms meet the demand.  It starts with an open-eyes look at where our industry is moving.

Lawyer blended with a computer and USB port

The reality is that corporate in-house clients are demanding routine process work be done for less, putting pressure on law firms to deliver their services faster with less overhead.  2012 also marked the first year that non-lawyers are allowed to own law firms in the UK, dramatically expanding the capital available for those firms’ investment and growth.

Here at home, lawyer-only firm ownership still reigns in Canada, but mergers with international players push our largest firms into ever-greater levels of competition.  Lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs in Canada are in turn growing their shares in the consumer market by launching online legal services.

New entrants to the market still haven’t quenched the demand for lower legal costs. Canadians face serious access to justice issues, and even middle-class litigants find themselves increasingly forced to represent themselves in court.

How are law students responding to these challenges?  Traditional not-for-profit work in legal clinics like Queen’s Legal Aid and Pro-Bono Students Canada is popular while in law school, but how many students continue their pro-bono efforts post graduation?  How does this solve the problem for clients who aren’t poor but still can’t afford legal advice?

I believe the change starts with how legal services are delivered.  I believe it starts by getting students thinking about innovative ways to bring the law to Canadians.

Law-students for Technology and Innovation (LFTI) is a student-run organization Nikolas Sopow and I created this year at Queen’s Law.  We’re passionate about finding better ways to deliver legal services.  We’re law students, but we’re not afraid of the changes coming to the Canadian legal scene.  Within three weeks we recruited four more executives to our team, and we’re still growing.  By 2015 we plan to have LFTI clubs at every law school in Canada.

Our projects this year are as diverse as our leadership team.  We’re hosting a speakers’ panel in Winter 2013 titled Technology on the Legal Frontier: Current and Future Ways to Practice Law.  We’re fundraising for computer literacy skills in Kingston by hosting a LAN party for video-game enthusiasts.  We’re blogging on the latest legal tech to hit app store shelves.  And we’re letting everyone know how the delivery of legal services is changing, so our classmates are prepared when they graduate.

Needless to say I’m excited at what LFTI has set out to accomplish this year.  Being prepared for the changing legal environment in Canada is about more than making a living as a lawyer.  It’s about making legal counsel affordable, providing greater access to justice, and ensuring Canadian firms remain competitive in the global market for legal services.

What areas of legal service delivery do you think could be improved?  How does legal education need to change in order to keep up?  Be creative, and ask tough questions. The innovative advocate is Canada’s legal future.

– Ivan

Note that this article was published concurrently on LawIsCool.com