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Dear law student: The future of law is now


The Future Is Now. Not only is that title prophetic, it was also the name of a conference hosted by my organization, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, last month.

Held in the Art Institute of Chicago, we welcomed almost 400 attorneys to a series of TED talks and town hall discussions about the future of our profession and the space for lawyers in a world where technology is king. It’s of particular concern to law students as the youngest custodians of this brave new legal world.

For those unable to attend, here are the top ten takeaways for law students from our conference:

1. The train is leaving the station. So it’s past time to get on board. Over and over, the speakers emphasized that the future way of practicing law – online dispute resolution, alternative billing, direct-to-consumer apps – are all already here. Lawyers need to hop on the future train else we risk getting left behind. And to stand out in an increasingly competitive job market, law students especially need to learn about new ways to practice law, starting as early as the first year of law school.

2. Use technology to reach new clients. What’s the largest courthouse in the world? It’s the phone you’re holding in your hand. The father of online dispute resolution, Ethan Katsh, spoke about the millions of disputes resolved online, primarily between sellers and consumers. And it’s not just on the commercial side. Chase Hertel of Road to Status described how his organization uses software to help immigration clients complete their paperwork faster. Your future clients are online. Where will you be?

3. Millennials cannot rest on being “digital natives.” Darth Vaughn, a law partner and legal tech entrepreneur, pointed out that many Millennials think they know all about new technology. That reliance, Darth argued, is dangerous. A 2 year-old can figure out how to use an iPad. Instead Millennials need to actively learn how different forms of technology work and how they can apply that technology to their future practice.

4. Technology can seem threatening to many senior lawyers. At the same time, law students should remember when they enter the workplace that technology is still seen as a threat to some older attorneys. Many came to our town hall microphones to discuss how technology cannot replace the good sense of a lawyer, and that progress was happening too quickly without thought to consequence. Remember that while you may be quick to embrace future law, others might be more cautious.

5. The Future is Female. And Black. And Latinx. That was the message from Microsoft’s Assistant General Counsel, Dennis Garcia. Millennials are the vanguards of a transformed population. Ensuring diverse voices are included in your future practice will make your work better and make your clients (who are increasingly putting more money muscle behind diversity initiatives) more likely to hire you and use you again.

6. Obamacare for Lawyers? What if the general public could go into a lawyer’s office once or twice a year for a legal checkup? And what if private insurance would cover it? That’s what Nicolle Schippers of ARAG proposed. Legal checkups and legal insurance would transform our access to justice dilemma. Currently the US ranks 94th out of 113 countries for overall accessibility and affordability of civil justice, with many Americans not recognizing they have legal problems, unable to afford legal help, or preferring to represent themselves in legal disputes. Annual legal checkups could make Americans more aware of their legal needs. Legal insurance meanwhile could make any legal help they need wholly affordable.

7. The billable hour is dying. Lawyers have long heard that the billable hour is on the way out. The message from our conference is that this is 100% true. Law students need to pay attention. Nicole Auerbach from Valorem Law explained that law firms who dedicate themselves to alternative fee arrangements from the outset have more financial success than law firms who only adopt it half-heartedly. One of the advantages of alternative billing? It recognizes certain areas that the billable hour traditionally does not, intangibles like efficiency and creativity, and deliverables such as second opinions and after-action assessments.

8. Working harder is not always working better. Several speakers reinforced the need to focus on the value of what we deliver our clients, not the amount we are working or billing. Jack Newton of CLIO mentioned that lawyers greatly over-estimate the amount of hours that they work, thinking they bill far more hours than they actually do. Similarly, Professor Bill Henderson of Maurer School of Law proposed that lawyers re-frame their work as resolving more complexity per hour. Work better and reap the rewards.

9. Remember who we are here to serve. And let’s not lose sight of the clients we serve. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas, the impetus behind the Commission on the Professionalism, asked participants to remember what brings people to the courthouse. Injury, death, unemployment, divorce, child custody battles, the commission of a crime. Whatever it is, he urged us all to remember this, “For the people involved, the court’s decision can mean the world.”

10. And don’t forget who holds the butter. Justice Thomas also shared a story. A former Chicago Bears kicker, he was the toast of a party celebrating his game-winning field goal.  At the reception, he asked the waitress for more butter. She replied that she wasn’t able to give it to him. He said, “Do you know who I am?” And she said, “Do you know who I am? I’m the person holding the butter.” Whether it’s your client, your paralegal, your supervisor, or your assistant, remember that at the end of the day, they’re the ones holding your butter.

Michelle Silverthorn Michelle Silverthorn is the Founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation, a diversity consulting firm based in Chicago. Michelle founded Inclusion Nation on the belief that diversity and inclusion needs a new voice for a new generation. A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Michigan Law School, Michelle spent four years practicing for two large law firms in New York and Chicago. She then transitioned into the legal education field where she spent six years training thousands of attorneys – in-person and online – about unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion, and millennials in the workplace.