Just as other academic units across universities collaborate with industry partners on research and development projects, law schools can do the same. The timing has never been better. Many lawyers have accepted that they need to engage in innovation projects to improve legal-service delivery. At the same time, law schools continue to add experiential courses as required by the ABA and a few have launched legal innovation and technology programs. These developments have produced many opportunities for law schools, practitioners, and experts from other disciplines to work together to improve legal services.

Conducting research and development that leads to legal-service delivery innovations is one of our foundational goals at MSU Law’s LegalRnD. This goal fits well with our other foundational goals: training 21st Century, T-shaped lawyers and engaging with industry partners to identify needs and problems, work toward solutions, and test, improve, and implement solutions.

Law school R&D aligns well with the needs of law schools’ customers. Students get experience collaborating with others while working on interdisciplinary teams to solve challenging real-world problems. Employers get to explore and test opportunities to provide greater value in a low-risk environment. And the public benefits when law schools contribute to research and development that expands access to legal services for everyone.

Law School R&D produces an important public benefit: Expanded access to legal services for everyone.

Since the launch of LegalRnD two years ago, we’ve engaged in several research and development projects. Below, I briefly describe some of them. In the future, I plan to write more about our projects and highlight the contributions of students and our partners who made these projects possible.

  1. Court Kaizen Project – 55th District Court, Mason, Michigan (Summer 2015) – Five law students and I, with our lean coach Ken Grady, formed a team with three civil-law clerks for a week-long kaizen event. Judge Thomas P. Boyd and Judge Donald L. Allen Jr. asked us to study the landlord-tenant litigation process from the perspective of self-represented litigants. We worked very closely with the civil law clerks to understand and map the process, identify and test potential improvements, and implement improvements.
  2. Law School Lean Thinking – MSU Law Career Services (2015-16) – Jim Manley (then the Managing Director of the Demmer Center for Business Transformation at the Eli Broad College of Business at MSU) and I led a team of three law students and five career-services professionals in a year-long “lean thinking” transformation. Our goal was to engage everyone in the MSU Law Career Services Office in lean thinking and empower them to improve processes and take action to provide greater value to students, alumni, and employers. (I previously wrote about this project: “Lean Thinking” Fuels 13.64% Improvement in Law Graduate Placement.)
  3. Lean Legal Aid – Elder Law of Michigan (2015-16) – Jim Manley and I led a team of four law students working with Elder Law’s president, Keith Morris, and three Elder Law attorneys in a year-long transformation project. Our team met weekly, together learning about process improvement and how to incorporate “continuous improvement” approaches into the day-to-day delivery of legal services. Our goal was to increase the number of clients served, thereby increasing access to legal services. We explored improvements to processes, tested potential improvements, and implemented those that worked, continuing to refine them. Keith wrote two blog posts about our work: LEAN Thinking at the Legal Hotline and LEAN Manufacturing Analysis Helps Senior Legal Hotline Network Serve More Clients in Better Ways. (The Lean Legal Aid and Court Kaizen Projects were supported by funding from LegalRnD and the Michigan State Bar Foundation.)
  4. Quantitative Legal Prediction – Litigation: {Data, Theory, Practice, & Process} class – A significant portion of this class is devoted to exploring how lawyers can use data to predict outcome probabilities, marshal resources, and work with clients to obtain better results. Since the first offering of this class, Lex Machina has provided training and its tools to our students for projects and an in-class “pitch for business” competition. Over the last several editions of the class, Ravel has provided our students access to its advanced analytics platform. Our students also use Casetext in the class.
  5. Legal-Process Automation Projects – Litigation: {Data, Theory, Practice, & Process} class (Fall 2017) – ThinkSmart provides its Transaction Automation Platform (TAP) to students in my Litigation class. For their final project, each student automated a legal process. Students chose a process and first applied lean thinking to understand and map the process and explore and test opportunities for improvements. Then students used TAP to automate the process. Students have found that potential employers are very interested in hearing about their experience tackling these projects, which present the same challenges that they face in their organizations. We will be doing even more with ThinkSmart in 2017-18.
  6. Legal-Services Business-Model Redesign – Entrepreneurial Lawyering class – Students in this class spend the semester working to solve a legal-service delivery problem. Many of them come to class with a solution, but they quickly shift their focus to the customer’s perspective and problem to be solved as we discuss the Lean Startup, business model canvas, and lean canvas. Students develop plans for startup companies, new model law firms, niche practices, and re-engineered traditional practices, among other things.
  7. Illinois Legal Aid Data Projects – Quantitative Analysis for Lawyers (Spring 2017) – The Illinois Lawyers Trust Fund provided our class with research questions and large datasets related to legal services provided by several traditional legal aid organizations and Illinois Legal Aid Online. Students worked in teams of two and completed a project addressing these specific research questions. Students used a mix of Python, Jupyter Notebook (formerly iPython Notebook), Excel, and Tableau to complete their projects. Illinois Lawyers Trust Fund Executive Director Mark Marquardt and Counsel for Innovation & Technology Hanna Kaufman visited our class and worked with our students to fine tune their projects. The students presented their findings to several stakeholders. We will be tackling similar projects and others during the Fall 2017 edition of the course.
  8. Thomson Reuters Product Design Challenge – Twenty LegalRnD students competed against student teams from four other law schools in this day-long product design challenge. Students formed into teams of five, designed a product, and pitched it to the judges.
  9. Legal Innovation Research – In 2016 I published an article about legal startups in the South Carolina Law Review: What We Know and Need to Know About Legal Startups. Currently, I’m in the early stages of conducting additional research on the state of legal industry innovation and R&D. Several law students are helping with this research. I plan to write more about this later this summer.
  10. Legal-Process Re-Engineering Project – I’m working with a partner at an Am Law 200 firm and an alternative legal-service provider on a project to explore the possibilities for re-engineering a significant legal workflow.
  11.  Eviction Diversion Program Study – 54A District Court, Lansing, Michigan – Chief Judge Louise Alderson reached out to ask whether the LegalRnD program could assist with the study of an eviction diversion program pilot being implemented this fall. Two LegalRnD students will intern for Judge Alderson and complete the study in connection with taking my Quantitative Analysis for Lawyers class this fall. We have already met with Judge Alderson and her team several times as well as participated in meetings with stakeholder groups.

This highlights but a few of our LegalRnD R&D projects. We also engage in legal-services innovation through faculty research, student directed-study projects, externships, internships, workshops, weekly meetings, hackathons, meetups, and other activities. I’m proud of what our students and alumni have accomplished thus far. That said, we’ve only scratched the surface. We aim to do even more during the 2017-18 academic year to show how law schools can help conduct legal-services innovation and R&D that will improve access to legal services for everyone.