Five things I learned at the Reinvent Law Conference in Silicon Valley

by Aaron Dewald (@drtriathlon)

“The future is already here.”

photoThis was the general idea that I got when I attended the first Silicon Valley Reinvent Law conference. I flew out to Mountain View with the director of marketing at the College of Law, Dana Wilson, to check out the conference. Since we’ve started the Center for Innovation in Legal Education, we’ve been looking for kindred spirits hoping to achieve similar goals to us, and we’ve definitely found one.  Reinvent Law was started in 2012 by Michigan State University. They won a Kauffman Foundation grant to address the pressing issues facing the legal industry… and if the conference was any indication, they’re facing a crisis not unlike the one facing law schools today.

I absolutely loved this conference.  The energy and buzz around was incredible, and everyone seemed genuinely interested in the issues discussed.

I took something away from nearly every single presentation, but I wanted to share some thoughts I had with you about the top 5 things I learned or considered from this conference.

5. I do not like the 6 minute “ignite” format questions
A handful of the presentations were given this way.  In fact, the first 5-6 presentations were of this manner.  While I can really, really appreciate the expediency of this format – squeezing in as many presenters as you can – it felt discombobulated. We all know that you need to connect with the audience and set the stage a little bit to consume the information you are presenting.  Now, with VC style funding pitches, this works awesome because all people receiving the information are of nearly equivalent background knowledge. Unfortunately, the diverse audience wasn’t on “the same page” as the presenters for some of it.  By the time we started to figure out what was going on (if we did), the presentation was over. I will say that nearly everyone did a great job with it… especially the MSU students.

I’d go with 10 minutes, but that’s just me.

The other thing I noticed is there were no questions presented to any of the speakers. Rather, it seemed that the groups were to use Twitter to answer and respond to questions. In fact #ReinventLaw was trending at one point on Twitter, which was incredibly awesome. It’s a great idea to fit in more information and keep the energy and information flow high… moving discussion to Twitter where it can happen in depth – and include more people, like the folks following along at home. It takes a little bit of foresight to implement, but I think it paid off huge for them.

4. The law needs visualizations
I realize the primary currency of lawyers is paper.  Reams and reams of paper. Law students write papers, they read from 1000 page case books, and more (though this is changing with “e” tools).

There were quite a few presentations, however, that said that law data needs to be visualized to be useful.  I believe this. Visualizations can do so much for people that aren’t law experts.  Visualizations can be incredibly useful to pack a bunch of relevant information in something easy to see and understand. Text is so abstract – visualizations can solidify those abstract ideas through visuo-spatial cues, color and size cueing, and relationships.

Visualizations can assist by something called “computational offloading.” Think of it this way, if you’re explaining the heart and circulatory system, is it easier to tell someone how the blood flows through the heart and the rest of the body, or show them a picture?  Not only that, but they’ll be able to make better, deeper inferences because they don’t have to recreate and process the “flow structure” each time they are asked a question. This is something we can use when considering the use of visualizations in law.  How can we make it easy for non-lawyers to see the structure… so they can get to and understand the information they’re really looking for.

As we go down the path of visualizations, let’s make sure that we’re applying the right multimedia theory and representation rules that we can learn from educational psychology… that way lawyers as well as non-lawyers can benefit from legal visual representations

3. We (law schools) need to partner more.
Whether it’s reforming legal practice or legal education, it became apparent that making fundamental changes in legal practice or education isn’t going to be accomplished by one school, one firm, or one person. I saw a lot of people trying really hard to make changes and it’s completely awesome… but I also wanted to stand up and say, “how can I help!!?” Those of us in attendance felt a certain sort of “brotherhood” and we need to make some of these relationships more official.  Some people have web experience. Some have learning and teaching experience.  Some have creativity in other fields.  An all inclusive “superorganization” might be able to throw some weight around and put out cool things.  Plus, it might be more likely to get funding when they know there’s some super smart people around the table who are willing to invest time and energy long-term to solve these problems.

We need to partner more with our students. As mentioned, the MSU students did an awesome job presenting.  There were other students who had programming experience, teaching experience, or just other skills that would be super useful to a group. This will likely open up opportunities for our students and provide some valuable networking opportunities.

We also need to allow non-lawyers in the sandbox.  Even if we don’t have a JD, we can come up with some We can’t be afraid to ask some ed psych, business, language, CS, or others come and play with us.  Sometimes the best ideas can come from those with other perspectives. 

The Center for Innovation is hoping to do that. We’re looking for people from other schools who share the same goal of transforming legal education, to make it valuable for the students, the bar, and the general industry – because hey – not all law students go on to be lawyers.

2. Our students need to learn more practical skills
I was astounded at some of the ideas and thoughts about the legal industry. Ideas like LegalForce were absolutely incredible outside the box ideas. Are law students coming out of law school with all the ideas they need to create ideas like that? If the legal industry is changing… how are we adapting law school to meet the needs of the changed legal practice?  Are we?

Professor Bill Henderson laid out a great idea for revising the legal curriculum. The second and third years get a healthy dose of skill-based learning. They get a dose of business practices. They get a dose of critical thinking and meta-analysis.  Heck, someone even proposed teaching law students programming (would be a great way to get law students to think differently). We can’t be afraid to try some of these ideas out. What’s the worst it can do? Better prepare a student? As someone said or tweeted, “You can’t put thinking like a lawyer on a resume.”

1. We need to reinvent Law School.
As the presentations kept rolling, one thing became certain, Reinvent Law is doing a great thing by attacking the legal industry and looking for ways to approach “law, innovation, design, and delivery.”

We called for changing the legal profession through innovation… through thoughtful interventions… through technology. But I didn’t hear much about changing legal education. If we’re going to promote change in a profession, we need to promote change at the beginning… from where it starts.  We need to better train and educate students to prepare them for the “new legal profession”. To be business savvy. To be tech savvy.  We need more collaboration. We need to empower students from the beginning. Once we change what they learn, and the way they learn, then and only then will we be able to change the legal profession.

I’d like the Center for Innovation in Legal Education to help lead the way. Our innovative projects like Utahpreneur explore ways to leverage technology to free up time in the classroom – time that can be used to train students about drafting actual contracts in addition to the theory. Projects like our curriculum mapping project to give a more holistic view of what we offer our students… where can we improve the curriculum… how can we better help students understand their path through legal ed. Projects like our Contracts video series that help novices become experts to create a more quality in-class dialogue. Our Kids’ Court project aims to bring legal education to K12 students, to better prepare them to be the best law students they can be only a few short years after they’re out of school.

These are things law schools will need to be able to do. These are projects law schools must be willing to try. These are innovative, energetic projects that all law schools should be considering. We can’t do it alone… we’ll pick up supporters along the way.  

The CILE intends on hosting a conference in the Fall to discuss these very projects. If you’re interested in being involved and taking part, drop me a line and we’ll loop you into the discussion!

Who’s with us?