New Normal

‘Prudent innovation’ in law school—Colorado moves forward


By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

Last month, I talked about Prudent Innovation for law firms. This week, I want to talk about Prudent Innovation in law schools.

The argument for Prudent Innovation is based on some simple ideas:

• The world is changing pretty fast, but law is both resistant to change (so naturally changes slower) and has habits of mind and governing structures that make it not especially adept at managing change.

• The further the rubber band between the world and law stretches, the less valuable and credible law and the legal profession will be, and the more painful the realignment as law inevitably snaps back to catch up.

• At a minimum, there is both a societal responsibility (the duty of the profession to society, as opposed to the entitlements of the profession) and an intergenerational responsibility (from the Baby Boomers to younger lawyers) to ensure the future viability of legal institutions (courts, firms, law schools), and not resist change simply because incumbents are more comfortable with the status quo.

• If you try to innovate based on practices (precedents) that are working in other areas, some (but not all) of them will work, and you can build on the learning from successes to continue to advance your goals.

• We know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t and how things change than we did a generation ago, so adopting a one-size-fits-all model of monolithic law schools (or law firms) doesn’t make much sense.

• And specifically for law schools, the “way it always was” (but really wasn’t) model of clients cross-subsidizing young lawyers who cross-subsidize law school tuition and faculty scholarship and autonomy is not sustainable, and its practical effects are counter to everything law schools hope to promote (access to justice, diversity, rule of law).

Of late, there have been two notable stories about law schools’ need for Prudent Innovation.

Stephen Harper, with whom I often agree, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times rehashing many of the familiar critiques of law school. Titled “Too Many, Students, Too Few legal Jobs,” Steve criticized the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education and its leader, Dennis Archer.

Steve’s argument seemed quite “lawyerly” in the not-so-good sense, imagining that reducing the number of law students is a consequential reform, that a centralized group like the ABA should act to do so, and to the extent it didn’t, it must be because of the lack of competence or disinterestedness of its leader, Mr. Archer. That strikes me as the opposite of the way change happens and not all what one could expect from the ABA.

Just cranking out fewer “old normal” law grads is not going to solve anything. (Steve’s points about borrowing being fully recourse to students and not at all to schools were much more powerful.)

Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colorado, Phil Weiser, one of the most effective law school deans, announced that he is stepping down as dean (but not from the faculty) at a very young age. A University of Colorado Boulder press release on Phil’s announcement cited, among other accomplishments:

• Increasing applications and enrollment at the University of Colorado Law School in the face of an overall declining law school market.

• Holding tuition constant as result of aggressive fundraising.

• Creating the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, a center of excellence for both telecommunications law and policy and entrepreneurship.

In addition to those, I can point to several innovations I am familiar with:

• Creating the Tech Lawyer Accelerator with former VMware Inc. associate general counsel Bill Mooz, bringing some of the top in-house lawyers together with students to teach a modern New Normal approach to practice.

• The University of Colorado Law School professor Harry Surden’s work around “computable contracts,” which is at the core of the approach of the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research to address the large banks’ Dodd-Frank compliance challenges around “too complex to manage,” one of the core legal complexity challenges of our time.

Cisco hiring 3Ls as part of a new bridge to practice orientation.

Being a leader in the notion of “design,” including hosting George Kembel from Stanford’s D-school, who is generally viewed as the thought leader in this area.

So rather than wait for the ABA to compel change or constrain capacity, Phil and CU undertook to move forward in accordance with New Normal principles, creating a competitive advantage for CU students and faculty, and putting themselves in a much better position to sustain their institution and fulfill its mission. Phil has described much of this in previous contributions to this space.

I assume that less than 100 percent of CU’s faculty supported these changes. But the beauty of CU’s approach is that there should be either a positive (or negative) feedback cycle showing whether these initiatives are in fact working. That way, faculty and other stakeholders can see what’s working, how it serves their interests and adapt. Having lived there for many years, I can say that Colorado generally takes a more pragmatic, less polarized approach to problem-solving than other places. So it’s not surprising that Colorado would be in the lead, and hopefully set an example others can adapt and apply.

To oversimplify a bit, there seem to be 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, non-market-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.

Law schools that can’t manage to change themselves (and learn) in a changing environment will lose credibility and public support. A public land grant university law school like CU has an essentially public mission to engage in the broader legal and civic worlds and try to make them better—Phil and team have done a great job of fulfilling that mission.


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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