Friday, May 31, 2013
That's right, law students now have an opportunity to add hands-on e-discovery training to their skill set. Surely, a first-of-its-kind program is being offered by one of the 200 ABA-accredited law schools struggling to adapt to a changing legal market, right?
Well, actually, no. It is being offered by Bryan University, which began life in 1940 in Los Angeles as a stenography school for court reporters. It subsequently evolved into Bryan College, which offered associates degrees in various vocational tracks. More recently, it has received accreditation as a university, with a masters degree in applied medical informatics and a cetificate program in e-discovery. Both are offered exclusively online.
The e-discovey certificate program has some interesting features (press release here).
- It's an actual graduate program. Enrollment is limited to law students who have completed a course in civil procedure (so, functionally, 2Ls and 3Ls) or, at most, completed their JD studies in 2013.
- It's real-world relevant. The program is organized around the Electronic Discovery Reference Model (EDRM), which is a detailed yet evolving set of industry standards that flow from nearly a decade of meetings involving literally hundreds of major and minor players in the litigation industry -- law firms, tech start-ups, Fortune 500 companies, consultants, etc. I have been at an EDRM meeting. Just learning the arcane, technology language of this massive subfield could itself a big value-add for students.
- Students learn how to use tools. The program is an immersion experience in which students will learn how to use high-end software related to predictive coding and machine learning; after that, they move to human review using another industry software suite. This event is supported by several legal vendors, mostly software providers, because they want their tools to become industry standards. Lexis and Westlaw used this same playbook 30 years ago.
- It's compact and efficient. The program meets online in real-time two hours a day, four days per week, for four weeks.
The faculty is comprised of practitioners and technicians in the e-discovery business, not full-time law professors. The tuition is $1,495 (very cheap if measured by contact hours), which can be paid online via credit card. Alas, May 30th was the last day of registration!
Signficance of the Bryan University program
Is the Bryan University e-discovery certificate program evidence of law's slide into vocationalism, or are 200+ ABA-accredited law schools missing the boat on the future of law? This may frame a provocative debate among academics, but it gets us quickly onto the wrong track.
Let's separate changes in the legal economy from debates over academic identity, which tend to arouse our emotions. In other words, let's respond to these circumstances like level-headed lawyers and acknowledge the substantial evidence that the world of lawyering is changing in dramatic ways. If this is true, by extension significant changes to legal education are likely on their way.
If we focus on facts, Exhibit #1 has to be access to justice. Resolution of disputes through state and federal courts --the paradigmatic work of lawyers -- has become prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of U.S. citizens. Further, it is now getting a too rich even for major corporations. Part of the problem is proliferation of electronically stored information (ESI). Finding and analyzing the law, it turns out, is the easy part. We teach that in law school. But in this permanently digital world, facts never get lost. Rather, they accumulate. This creates large problems for litigants.
Instead of redesigning our judical system to deal with this challenge -- something a conservative legal profession is loath to do without a decade or two of deliberation -- we are now witnessing the rise of a massive industry of legal vendors trying to make electronic discovery more efficient.
Exhibit #2 in our factfinding journey is that a huge proportion of these new legal vendors are owned and controlled by nonlawyers. See Henderson, Losing the Law Business. It turns out that the MR 5.4 ban on fee-splitting is, to a large extent, not much of a barrier at all. Virtually everything up until the courthouse door or the client-counseling moment can be disaggregated and turned into a process or product delivered by a nonlawyer vendor adept at technology and systems engineering. Because there is so much money to be made by the application of technology and process to legal problems, the nonlawyer genie is not going back into the bottle. It is time to accept that fact.
Below is a chart I use in a lot of presentations to law schools and bar associations.
The point of this chart is very simple. A legal services industry has arisen around the traditional legal profession. Now, increasingly, the word "service" is falling out because products and mechanized processes are taking their place, driving up quality, and driving down cost and cycle time. Society wins. Lawyers adapt.
So, at a practical level, what does all of this mean?
Let's start with the good news. Law is not going away. In a highly interconnected, complex globalized world, law is actually becoming more important.
But here is the realistic inner lining. Law is also suffering from a productivity imperative. The average citizen -- including the typical lawyer -- can't afford to engage the services of an artisan lawyer. And large firms filled with high-priced artisan lawyers are becoming a less attractive option for even large corporations. They want better, faster, and cheaper legal solutions.
So, for law professors anyway, here is the bad news: Training artisan lawyers -- what U.S. law schools do -- is indeed a mature industry. The U.S. economy can't fully absorp 45,000 law graduates per year, at least not doing traditional artisan-type legal work. So, if we want reliable employer demand for our graduates, some retooling needs to take place. Is the retooling process hard and complicated? Absolutely. Does this type of change occur in other industries? Yes, as reliably as the sun rising in the east. Now is our turn.
How do we retool?
The most difficult hurdle is just accepting the need to change. It's purely an emotional obstacle. The cheese has been moved. It's gone. It will not reappear. We need to find new cheese. Not familar with the reference? See Who Moved my Cheese.
The next step is just showing up to industry events and accepting the fact that we are not the smartest person in the room, at least when it comes to intersection of technology, process design, project management, knowledge management, big data analytics, machine learning, and modern law practice, etc. Instead, it is time to just soak and poke. Practically speaking, this means listening to others and trying to decipher patterns that simplify and unify what we are observing.
Third, with the help of some adjuncts we deputize along the way (both lawyers and nonlawyers), we design and offer some new courses that capture these new realities. Fumbling through a very crude version of this methodology, I taught project management back in 2010. Not only was it a lot of fun, I learned new skills, both as a problem solver and as a teacher, made dozens of industry connections that opened doors for my students, and obtained a more realistic view of the legal profession. In short, it changed my life -- for the better.
Fourth, a subset of the legal academy needs to really dive into the topic of institutional design. The rise of the e-discovery business is entirely a artifact of how our legal system is structured. Perhaps it is time to think about better ways to resolve disputes and facilitate transactions. See, e.g., Disputes in the credit care industry. To me, law schools are the exact right places to think about, and wrestle with, these critically important issues. These are mountains just waiting to be climbed by the next iteration of law schools and law professors.
Fifth, with some smaller victories under our belts, we need to collaborate with colleagues to begin the messy process of organizing our new insights into a coherent curriculum that produces graduates with the most valuable skills sets in the shortest supply. With a world ramping up in complexity, I doubt these will be vocational skills. That said, we are probably a decade or two away from a more settled law school curriculum. But we will get there, and when we do, we will be incredibly proud of what we have accomplished.
[posted by Bill Henderson]