Sunday, January 22, 2012

What is The Legal Whiteboard?

[Posted by Bill Henderson]

As I write the inaugural post for The Legal Whiteboard, I am cognizant of the fact that our current readership will likely be single digit and driven largely by errant Google searches.  Hey, that is better than zero.  It doesn't matter if the first snowball is small; it just has to roll.  My sincere thanks to Paul Caron and Joe Hodnicki for taking a chance on one more blog devoted to lawyers and legal education.

For the benefit of our small initial readership, I would like to offer my own rationale for creating The Legal Whiteboard.  So here it goes.

According to a lot of reputable media outlets, the sky is falling for both legal education and legal services.  I understand the basis for this conclusion.  A lot of lawyers, young and old, are unemployed or underemployed.  The debt loads of graduating students are staggering.  The established “brand” law firms are doing something they have never done before --- shrink, or at least not grow.  This puts lawyers on edge and has a tendeny to spawn unhealthy, short-sighted behavior.  The federal government, through the direct lending of the Department of Education, continues to fuel the lawyer production machine.  So things may get worse before they get better.

Despite the fact that I am one of the go-to people on the speaker circuit when it comes time to talk about structural change, I am not in the sky-is-falling camp.  Instead, I see a lot of opportunities for lawyers, law students and legal educators to do very important and creative work.  What is most exciting about this work is that it will make society better off – law will become better, faster and cheaper.  Many legal services will become more standardized, productized and commoditized.  I realize that these words will rankle some of the old guard, particularly those still making a good living under the bespoke model.  But clients – including corporations, government and ordinary citizens—will love it.  Professional ideals will remain the cornerstone of successful legal enterprises, but denying the exigencies of the marketplace is, to my mind, unprofessional.

Because clients and society want better, faster and cheaper law, I believe lawyers (including legal educators) have a professional duty to ardently pursue this goal.  The hardest part of this assignment – and the most vexing and interesting – is how to parlay this transformation into a decent living. 

Many people assume that the new paradigm means lawyers working longer hours for lower wages.  That is one future business model.  But I think it utterly lacks imagination.  Lawyers are problem solvers.  To my mind, the growing price elasticity for legal services and legal education is just a very difficult problem.  And whenever I am faced with a very difficult problem, I typically start writing out my thoughts on a massive whiteboard.  (I am told it is quite a spectacle to behold.)  I am also someone who loves to collaborate.  With an outward facing Legal Whiteboard, I am hoping to elicit the genius of my fellow travelers.

Morriss2In addition to outlining the purpose of The Legal Whiteboard, I want to take this opportunity to say how happy and proud I am that Andy Morriss has agreed to be my co-venturer on this new project.  Andy Morriss and I have a long history together.  And it is a history that goes to the very core of what this blog is about – the transformative power of education.  I do not use the word transformative lightly.  I am talking about something that is life altering and deeply existential, helping us answer the most fundamental questions regarding the meaning and purpose of work and life.  Nearly twenty years ago, Andy was my college teacher.  And I got transformed.

Back in 1994, I was a 31 year-old firefighter-paramedic in a Cleveland suburb who decided to return to college at Case Western Reserve University to finish my undergraduate degree.  The goal was to attend law school.  (I had dropped out of college in 1984 after a junior year abroad at the London School of Economics – but that is a topic for a different post.)  I had my sights set on Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.  I was negotiating contracts for the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), and I wanted better tools to stick-it to the management attorneys we were up against. (A few years later, I learned to separate positions from personality.)

My last year of college was costing me a small fortune.  If I could earn a few A’s during my senior year, maybe I could get a partial scholarship to Cleveland-Marshall.  Suffice to say, I was an engaged student.  At the time, Andy, who has a JD and economics PhD, had a joint appointment with the Case business and law schools.  To minimize my use of “comp time” on days when my classes overlapped with my fire department shifts, I stacked all my classes on Tuesday and Thursdays – and those were the days that Andy taught at the business school.   So I took Law & Economics, Environmental Economics, and Law, Cooperation and Economics in successive semesters.

Taking a class from Andy has an exercise in having your expectations of a lecture class turned on their head.  To simulate a slip-and-fall case, we made puddles of spilt milk in hallways and contemplated who was in the best position– the alleged victim or tort-feasor – to avoid the harm in the first instance.   At the end of a substantive course unit, Andy would ask for feedback.  And in the next course unit, he would change his approach accordingly.  When someone in the class had an interesting life experience, he would get very excited and mine it for information relevant to the lesson plan.

Slowly it began to dawn on me that Andy was turning every classroom into a laboratory.  He was more than happy to convey his massive learning, but he was always trying to pull learning from the students and the classroom.  When a smart person lacks a big ego and is truly openminded, the ideas gush in.  Andy could walk to the grocery store from his condo in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and return home with a research idea worthy of a PhD dissertation.  And, in turn, he would give the idea away.

I have known Andy for almost 20 years and worked on several major projects with him.  Although we have never voted for the same presidential candidate, I can honestly say we have never once had a disagreeable disagreement.  And we have had hundreds of hours of laughter.  I want The Legal White board to perpetuate this ethos.  We are interested in ideas, meaningful trends and problem solving in law and legal education.  The dialogue is intended to be task-focused.  Ideas, facts and analysis are important; egos, ideology and personal agendas are not.  I hope this blog is useful first, but also entertaining, collaborative and humane.  These are the tricks I have learned from friend and mentor, Andy Morriss.

January 22, 2012 in Blog posts worth reading, Fun and Learning in the classroom, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (21)