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Legal Start-Ups Offer Hope For Change

These are trying times: it’s hard to avoid reading about diminishing law school enrollment, the difficulty of graduates landing jobs with firms, and the alleged decline in legal profession prestige. Based upon headlines, it’s easy to conclude that all is doom-and-gloom in the legal profession, with little prospect for rejuvenation.

Somewhat ironically, while lawyers are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “sharks,” (What? You hadn’t heard? Happy Shark Week!) some young and innovative attorneys are embracing one trait of the shark as the best hope for renewal, namely “Move forward or die.”

A recurring theme in this blog is how everything from technological advances to Supreme Court decisions like those concerning the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby have created new realms and reams of issues to be negotiated, contracted, and litigated. If an attorney was so inclined, he or she could likely carve out a successful career developing a niche practice centered around sorting out the law in emerging areas like these.

Other minds concerned with the future of the legal profession emphasize that law schools need to focus on broadening the knowledge base of their students, inculcating them in accounting and technology, so that newbie lawyers are familiar and comfortable with material that will likely figure heavily in many of their future dealings.

And there are burgeoning movements, some even taking place in law schools themselves, committed to redefining the practice of law.

As the New York Times reported, for the past couple of years, Michigan State University has been hosting the Entrepreneurial Lawyering Start-Up Competition, an outgrowth of its Reinvent Law Laboratory. In the most recent contest, at which law students pitch innovative law practices and services to a panel of legal experts and entrepreneurs in front of a student audience, presenters’ projects ranged from creating an app that connects people and law firms on short notice, helping homesteaders claim ownership of properties, and enabling immigrants seeking citizenship to fill out their taxes.

There’s also a growing emphasis on employing software programs to streamline and expedite time-consuming tasks like document searches, and even using programs to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of cases. In Michigan State’s 2013 Start-Up Competition, the top prizes went to a legal language translator of immigration forms, risk analysis software for collaboration between creative and legal departments in advertising, and software that performs data-driven legal analysis. I’m not even sure what the last two mean, but I’m sure it’s innovative!

The Reinvent Law Laboratory even has a modest video “channel,” although a few of the titles seem to go out of their way to demonstrate that lawyers continue to “reinvent English,” and not in a good way. I’m looking at you, “The Legal Delivery Model: Post-Cubist Paradigm,” “Legal Department = Evolutionary Eco-System,” and “Judicata: Law + Fact.”

But a majority of the talks, in some way, address what Dan Lear refers to in his provocatively titled talk, “We need more legal hackers now.” He doesn’t endorse actually breaking into anyone’s private files or infecting them with viruses, but rather highlights the need to break down, examine, and put back together from the ground up everything from how law firms are organized to the most efficient and effective ways to represent clients. In this vein, other presentations address alternative fee arrangements, price transparency, and running a paperless practice (that I want to see).

Just as laws must change in order to stay relevant and command the respect of the citizenry, so must the practice of law. These folks are kicking up a lot of dust. It’ll be exciting to watch it shake out and settle.

And WHAT, you may ask, does Rocket Lawyer have to do with re-imagining the practice of law? We thought you’d never ask! Rocket Lawyer has “merely” teamed up with the American Bar Association to launch a ground-breaking program geared toward bringing affordable online legal services to traditionally underserved communities like small businesses and the self-employed. Half of small business owners haven’t consulted with an attorney before coming to Rocket Lawyer, so the potential to match them with ABA member attorneys is enormous. For the attorney looking to connect with a heretofore hard to reach demographic, the potential is obvious. Read here for more information on the launch.

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