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Best way to boost access to justice? Change ethics rules, ‘13 Legal Rebel Renee Knake says

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Best way to boost access to justice? Change ethics rules, ‘13 Legal Rebel Renee Knake says

Aug 28, 2013, 12:00 pm CDT

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Photo of Renee Knake by Wayne Slezak.

Two years ago, professional responsibility law professor Renee Newman Knake knew she could no longer tout a rewarding and meaningful career in the law. As she saw it, the profession was plagued by wasteful inefficiency, a precipitous market drop, and the inability to serve a growing swath of the U.S. population.

"If I was going to stand up in front of my students and really believe that having a legal degree and a career as a lawyer can be among the most fulfilling career choices a person can make," says Knake, "I needed to be doing something to make sure that would be true going forward for future generations of lawyers."

Knake, 39, co-founded and co-directs Michigan State University's ReInvent Law Laboratory with fellow prof Daniel Martin Katz. "We needed to create a space where we could build an on-the-ground tool for rethinking the ways we deliver legal services, and then train our students and practicing lawyers to do it," Knake says.

Taking a page from Silicon Valley startups, Knake and Katz moved swiftly from an initial brainstorm lunch in summer 2011 to securing faculty support and outside funding in spring 2012 from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which grants funds to programs that advance entrepreneurship and improve education.

The duo developed a core curriculum for students that responds to employers' requests for specific jurisprudential skill sets in "pillar" areas of law, technology, design and delivery.

Last summer they organized LawTechCamp London, a free, daylong "unconference" that came on the heels of the full implementation of the United Kingdom's Legal Services Act in fall 2011. The impact of the act, which liberalizes the market for legal services in England and Wales, was especially intriguing to Knake, who concentrates her scholarship on the constitutionality of Rule 5.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 5.4 bans nonlawyer investment and ownership in law firms and serves as an ethics rule for most U.S. state bars. Knake is also co-director of the Frank J. Kelley Institute of Ethics & the Legal Profession at Michigan State.

"If I'm right that the ban on nonlawyer investment and ownership is in fact unconstitutional," Knake asks, "what does that mean if we haven't been training our students and preparing them about how to creatively come up with new models for delivering legal services, especially ones that an outside owner and investor would want to put money into?" She says overregulation compromises delivery of legal services to those who need them most.

Although some may oppose Knake's view of the Model Rules, MSU Law dean Joan W. Howarth hails Knake's work.

"Renee's chosen area of teaching and scholarship [professional responsibility in the legal profession] sounds like it would be quite ordinary, but it's an area of study that isn't given enough prominence by ambitious teachers and scholars," says Howarth. "She's part of a group that is revitalizing the field of professional responsibility and the whole profession."

The dean describes Knake as a visionary leader who gets things done, as evidenced by the cutting-edge speaker lineup at the London 2012 event. Keynoted by legal change-agent Richard Susskind, author of The End of Lawyers?, the fast-paced schedule was packed with experts in legal tech and design who offered the standing-room-only crowd glimpses of new ways to deliver legal services.

Rebranded under the ReInvent Law umbrella, programs in Dubai and Palo Alto, Calif., followed. Legal tech companies hired some of Knake's and Katz's MSU Law students right off the presentation stage. Another won an Adweek Project Isaac Award in June for software she developed to assess the legal risk of advertisement claims, an application that evolved from extensive conversations in Knake's office.

When Knake–a newly tenured associate law professor–talks about her work through the laboratory, she points to a controversial statistic released in 2011 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that challenges the ways traditional American schools prepare students.

"The study said 65 percent of today's elementary school children may end up in jobs that haven't been invented yet," Knake says. "We in the legal profession would be very foolish to think that doesn't apply to us in the here and now."

Watch the video interview.

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