The New Normal

‘Prudent innovation’ at William Mitchell: Extending the reach of learning

By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

In my last piece on Prudent Innovation, I suggested there were five schools of thought in response to the “disruption” taking place in law:

Denial. It’s just a blip, and things will return to normal.

Nostalgia. Things used to be better in the autonomous, professional, nonmarket, pre-Am Law, pre-US News driven legal world of yore.

Consensus. I will change when everyone else changes. Until then, any change is too scary.

Constraints. I would change, but there are so many constraints, it’s impossible.

Prudent Innovation. Let’s try what seems to be working in other places—if it has a reasonable chance of success and is consistent with our mission—and see what we can learn.

Our thesis here at the New Normal is that the gap between where law is and where it should be is big enough, and the practices to close that gap obvious enough, that most schools who engage in Prudent Innovation will succeed, benefiting their students and creating a useful innovation that can be replicated by others.

The flip side is that in a flat or declining legal market, it is not prudent to proceed simply by consensus, because most innovations will favor early movers. So law needs to develop a greater sophistication about models of innovation and change.

Since law schools should be leaders in developing effective models of change, it’s worth keeping an eye on what they are doing. Let’s look at another law school program that may well be among the most strategic of all.

Under the leadership of Barry Currier, the ABA announced in 2013 that it would accept proposals for innovations from law schools. The first (and as far as I know, still only) school to propose a new distance learning model was William Mitchell, a stand-alone law school in St. Paul, Minnesota. The ABA Journal reported in May: “Mitchell’s part-time four-year program allows students to earn their degree through a combination of in-person and online study. They start their first and third semesters with a week of in-person instruction. They also end each semester with an in-person session called a capstone period. In the meantime, they learn online. The cost is roughly equal to the school’s in-person part-time program.”

Distance learning, of course, is one of great challenges of our time, an area where hype has been much greater than success. But if law schools are serious about addressing the related problems of access to justice, diversity and cost of law school, then they should be keen to explore the possibilities of distance learning.

Mitchell launched the program in 2015 and recently filed an update with the ABA. Among the successes cited by Mitchell:

• Enrollment exceeded expectations: 85 enrolled and 79 completed the first semester, and 96 are now enrolled for the class starting last month.

• The innovative curriculum was based on a “backward design,” competency-based process.

• The program has rigorously sustained the core values around teaching, learning and faculty excellence, e.g., students are writing more and the school is assessing learning, core skills like interviewing, writing, are taught during the on-campus capstone weeks.

• Since most of the students have full-time jobs, they are going to take a more integrated and perhaps innovative approach to applying law.

• The hybrid is attracting very diverse students, including military families and rural students—90 percent of the hybrid program’s second cohort come from outside Minnesota, broadening Mitchell’s market and often serving students who have poor access to a law school.

• By moving to a new context, innovation in teaching methods. As one faculty member said in William Mitchell’s annual report on the program (PDF): “Teaching in the hybrid program has made me a better instructor. Because students need specific guidance in the online portion of their education, I had to put even more thought into how I present the materials, and how I give feedback. I believe the next time I teach this class ‘in person,’ my students will benefit.”

So what can we take away from Mitchell’s success so far?

• A thoughtful, deliberate innovation has a reasonable shot at success—especially if it addresses a market need and leverages best practices from elsewhere.

• Changing the context will force a more rigorous examination of methods and results.

• Faculty (or law firm) consensus governance models need not be an impediment to innovation—indeed, consensus-based decision models can work well, leading to carefully developed strategies and high buy-in for implementation.

• Innovation requires some segmentation and focus. Mitchell is targeting specific national and even global niches of law students. Innovations will not be universally applicable.

• Innovators should be open to “vendor-based” innovation. Law schools and law firms tend to assume that they have to figure out everything. The iPhone and other consequential innovations rely on lots of value from their suppliers and collaborators. I don’t know all the specifics of Mitchell’s e-learning platform, but I suspect a lot of the expertise about what worked came from their vendor.

• The benefits of innovation will tend to inure to first movers.

And what are the limits of Mitchell’s success?

• Law remains a reputationally dominated field. So while having an effective, first mover hybrid program can help Mitchell, there is nothing in the world (short of a billion dollars and 10 years) that can enable a law school to radically transform its reputation. If the Puritans had settled in Minnesota rather than Massachusetts, then maybe Mitchell instead of Harvard would have been the first law school; absent that alternate history, being the first hybrid law school is the most profoundly useful strategy Mitchell can adopt.

• The overall market for distance learning is not infinite, so not every follower will succeed.

I’m not a huge fan of Nike’s advertising, but sometimes “Just Do It” can be a reasonable motto.

If we go back to the five reactions to change, I think we can begin to predict the most likely consequences of each approach (equally applicable to law firms and legal departments).

Denial. It’s just a blip and things will return to normal. No change, no learning, no insight, no early-warning system and ultimately diminished credibility.

Nostalgia. Things used to be better in the autonomous, professional, nonmarket-driven legal world of yore. Not serious, no way to discern what’s really happening.

Consensus. I will change when everyone else changes. Until then, any change is too scary. Personal safety, but institutional risk. Late changer, no way to take advantage of opportunities.

Constraints. I would change, but there are so many constraints it’s impossible. Weak leadership. No capacity to act, not effective role model.

Prudent Innovation. Let’s try what seems to be working in other places if it has a reasonable chance of success and is consistent with our mission, and see what we can learn. Bingo.

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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