ABA Journal

The New Normal

‘Grow’ your law school? The what, why and whether of Denver Law

By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

While many law schools and law firms are successfully grappling with change, others are not. To better understand the what, why and whether of leading an institution forward, let’s look at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law as part of our series exploring Prudent Innovation.

The What

Denver Law is focused on helping students get jobs and advance professionally in a changing world, without sacrificing scholarship.

• As part of the strategic planning process, more than a dozen faculty members actively interviewed stakeholders in the profession, both law firms and clients.

• Denver Law views the law school as a hub, not an ivory tower, and been very engaged in the world beyond its walls, creating medical-school like residencies with employers (in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder).

• Denver Law has embraced cross-disciplinary problem-solving and working on teams. DU wants to train practice-ready lawyers and look at problems from a client perspective through experiential education (see “design” orientation). DU has also created cross-school problem-solving collaborations with its engineering and business schools.

• Denver Law has implemented a cross-teaching collaboration with Villanova, offering Villanova students an energy law course and accessing courses at Villanova not available at Denver Law. Click here for a discussion of the strategic importance of distance learning.

• Denver Law has emphasized high-impact scholarship, encouraging faculty to seek to influence not only their scholarly peers but the broader world of legal decision-makers: emphasizing the “why should I care” question and writing versions of their work for a broader audience.

• Denver Law has executed a comprehensive and effective approach to diversity, reaching out to diverse students in high school and college to expose them to career opportunities in law.

The Why

We can point to four reasons why Denver Law has been in the forefront of positive change:

  1. Denver Law’s leadership, including Dean Marty Katz (a former law firm partner), have much more experience outside the academy than most academic leaders.

  2. Denver University as an institution had been on the move, similar to other private urban schools like New York University, the University of Southern California, the University of Miami and Boston University, and so provides a model for a dynamic law school. The law school’s job is not merely to optimize its U.S. News ranking, but to collaborate across the university.

  3. Denver Law tapped sources of funding to support new and innovative programs, minimizing zero-sum conflicts between the Old and New Normal.

  4. The co-opetition between two schools (Denver Law and CU, 25 miles away), each of which has chosen a more innovative path, provides a healthy positive dynamic and safe place for innovation. With only two schools in a market that can readily support two, neither faces an existential crisis and crippling fear that would inhibit making smart choices for the longer term. As a state, Colorado tends to be more pragmatic, less orthodox than other states—a healthier place to try to create change.

The Whether

For those tracking the evolution of the New Normal, the intriguing question raised by the parallel dean transitions at CU and Denver Law—both Katz and Colorado Law dean Philip J. Weiser are stepping down in July and returning to their respective law faculties—is the impact on the rate of innovation. In academic and professional firm management, we commonly see innovators followed by a successor picked to “provide some breathing room.”

But in this particular case the nominally “low-risk” breathing room approach may be the riskier choice.

• Denver Law’s direction is instantiated in a strategic plan and institutional structures, so to reverse course or merely pay lip service to the change would not just be, as Jeff Carr says, “Massive Passive Resistance,” but would in fact be a change in direction.

• Denver Law’s strategic direction is not subjective or ideological—it is an empirically verifiable attempt to align the law school with changes in the legal world and society, serving the needs of core constituents. The change has already created a positive feedback loop, which should be self-reinforcing. Even those faculty and alums opposed to the New Normal direction will benefit from its success.

• Because the two schools are so close, if one retrenches while the other moves forward, the retrencher will lose relative ground, so the normal lawyerly/human inclination to default to inaction becomes risky in Colorado’s competitive context.

So far, we’re three-for three—we’ve looked at three law schools that are undertaking sensible and apparently effective prudent innovations. Marty Katz was named the fourth-most influential Dean in legal education by National Jurist, and Denver Law made a huge move up the U.S. News Rankings. So why aren’t more schools and firms doing more? Isn’t “Denver Law-ification” just a self-evidently smart, self-interested approach?

Perhaps the answer can be found in an excellent recent essay from Wendy Bernero, citing research by Carol Dweck from Stanford University about the difference between a “growth” versus “fixed” mindset.

“People with a fixed mindset believe that they were born with a set amount of intelligence and talent, and certain character traits that cannot be expanded or enhance. … Those with a growth mindset believe that their innate intelligence, character traits and capabilities are just starting points.”

In a world of fixed mindsets and a reputationally recursive U.S. News rating hierarchy, nothing can change. But that’s not the world, it’s just a shorthand we’ve used to measure the world over the last generation.

The frustrating irony is that most law school faculty members seek to inculcate in their students a growth mindset about their ability to create positive change in the world through law, but too often teach law in a way that creates a fixed mindset. If law schools don’t approach their own work with a growth mindset, how can law move forward to fulfill its role in society?

To quote my friend Kent Walker, general counsel of Google:

“You don’t want to rest on your laurels. Each year, you want to improve your processes and improve the conversation between outside lawyers and in-house lawyers. There are always new ways to get better. We need to know what’s not working, what’s working well today, and what we hope will work even better tomorrow.”

Grow on, Denver Law.

Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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