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Tech skills are the key to law students’ future employment, says ‘13 Legal Rebel Dan Katz
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Tech skills are the key to law students’ future employment, says ‘13 Legal Rebel Dan Katz

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Tech skills are the key to law students’ future employment, says ‘13 Legal Rebel Dan Katz

Aug 28, 2013, 02:30 pm CDT

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Photo of Dan Katz by Wayne Slezak.

Law professor Daniel Martin Katz is betting the pot–his future and those of his students–on a radical model of legal training and job placement.

Katz’s ReInvent Law Laboratory, which he co-founded and co-directs with fellow Michigan State University College of Law professor Renee Newman Knake, aims to prepare students and practicing lawyers for what the face of law will become as traditional delivery models stagnate and legal technology startups and alternative service providers continue to expand.

“The part [of the legal profession] that is actually growing–the Clearspires, the Axioms, legal process outsourcers and software companies–they need people with particular sets of skills who have domain expertise and can build software that works to solve legal problems,” says Katz, an associate law professor with a tech and public policy background–an unusual combination in legal academia. “They need lawyers who know the law, understand software and technology, and [know] how to mesh the two.”

Katz’s familiarity and expertise with visual design, computer science and big data are missing from most law school faculties, says MSU Law dean Joan W. Howarth, who recruited Katz to be a change agent at her school.

“I was especially pleased when Dan took his expertise and his passion to questions about the future of the legal profession and industry,” Howarth says, “because he has the skills to be able to think about, write about and push forward any kind of subject.”

To that end, the ReInvent Law module includes a core curriculum of classes designed to teach students and practicing lawyers “hard skills” such as quantitative legal prediction (including technology that predicts whether a client has a case, the odds of winning it and which arguments should be used in support). The program also promotes the research and development of legal service models that are affordable, accessible and widely adopted through startup competitions and free daylong seminars designed to spark ideas and conversation among leading entrepreneurs and legal innovators. That crowd includes Katz’s students, who are gaining the attention of legal employers–and getting hired.

Although Katz, 35, actively recruits tech-savvy prospective students the way a college football coach scouts talent (Katz played ball at the University of Oregon), that doesn’t mean policy-science majors need not apply.

“They just have to be willing to take a crash course and learn” (which he says has never been easier thanks to the explosion of free, online university-level classes) “because in this industry, you don’t have to be able to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun the other people. When it comes to a technical standpoint, most people in the legal industry can’t even walk.”

Katz has no qualms that his vision won’t kowtow to those married to traditional law school methods and business models. He feels the placement of ReInvent Law students in BigLaw jobs will spur wider adoption of similar modules that teach these skill sets and increase demand for those who possess them.

To break the barrier with traditional firms, “you have to have somebody so ‘teched up’ that it makes sense to hire them,” Katz says.

“Discovery is where it clearly makes sense. When I talk to lead discovery law firm partners, they say that they need people with these skills and would rather take a person like that than someone currently in their organizations,” Katz says. “They’ll say that off the record, but the idea is the No. 2 person on the matter doesn’t know anything; they’re just there.”

“If we prove this [model] is successful, there will be a lot of copycats, but the problem is law school faculty don’t have the tools; there are no tech skills or design training, no entrepreneurs,” Katz says.

“They don’t have skin in the game. I’m in the club because I’ve got [capital in legal tech] companies and have pushed all my chips forward on this. That’s my bet. We’ll see where it lands.”

Watch the video interview.

Last updated at 9:10 p.m. Aug. 28 to correct an error. Dan Katz played ball at the University of Oregon.

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