Bill Henderson’s Institute for the Future of Law Practice trains a new breed of lawyers

Bill Henderson has long been a highly influential agent of change in the legal industry — as an educator, researcher, academic and writer. In addition to his role as the Stephen F. Burns Chair of the Legal Profession at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, Henderson is the founder and primary editor of Legal Evolution and co-founder of Lawyer Metrics (now LawyerMetrix), an applied research company that helps lawyers use data to make better operational and strategic decisions.

His work, which concerns the transformation of the legal industry, legal operations and legal education, has culminated in the founding of the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), a nonprofit organization that seeks to build a talent pipeline that better suits the interests of law students, law schools and legal employers as they prepare for a rapidly advancing future focused on the delivery of efficient, transparent and economical service.

Kimberly Leach Johnson, Quarles & Brady LLP’s Chair, had the chance to speak with Henderson about the Institute, the evolution of the legal industry, and innovations in legal education.

Kimberly Johnson: Can you tell us a little about the origin of the IFLP? How have changes in the business of law driven changes in law school curricula?

Bill Henderson: The program grew out of the needs of corporate clients who, time and time again, told us they not only need talent with deep substantive legal expertise, but also with the operational skills to put that expertise into action more efficiently, including a working understanding of finances, billing and technology.

Bill Mooz was one of these guys, and he told the Dean at the University of Colorado’s law school that we just aren’t training our students to practice law at the cutting edge. So the dean told him to come back and teach. Bill created a program called the Tech Lawyer Accelerator (TLA), which involved a three-week boot camp for teaching business principles, process technology, data, and things like that. I helped Colorado obtain some grant funding for the program, so Indiana Law was able to send a few students each year. We got employers to hire summer and seven-month interns out of this boot camp. It was very successful.

The problem was we couldn’t scale it, particularly seven-month version. Until a couple of years ago, law schools were not permitted to grant academic credit for paid employment. Although the seventh-month internship has a tremendous impact on a student’s skill level and future employability, the lack of credit required students to move heaven and earth to graduate on time.

KJ: So how did you get around that? What changed?

BH: Steve Harmon, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Cisco, had gotten a lot of value out of the students he employed from the TLA. So at the 2017 Corporate Legal Operations Consortium meeting, he pulled me aside and asked, “When are you guys going to get your act together and grow this program so we can hire more interns?”

For a while I still thought we’d hit a wall, that we couldn’t get academic credit for it. But Steve got me thinking, and it occurred to me that the ABA had recently changed the rules for academic credit for paid field placements. From there, I called up Bill Mooz and asked, “Should we give this a try?” From June until November 2017, we did a needs analysis and eventually incorporated the nonprofit IFLP in Chicago to begin scaling the program we’d started in Colorado.

This year we’re up to 40 students. And at Indiana University, where I teach, we’ve got academic credit approved for the entire sequence. We’re planning on going up to 72 students next year and have asked 15 more schools to participate. All of it stemmed from Steve and the ABA credit change.

KJ: And what have you heard from the students?

BH: The novel feature about all this is that we bake in paid employment into the class. I always say — get students into a sophisticated practice environment, and good things happen. And they have. We find our students are way ahead of their peers after their internships and field placements. At present, we have an underemployment of law students during the summer months. We think the IFLP training is a compelling reason for employers to reevaluate their talent needs. IFLP is offering better trained talent at a price point well below traditional summer associates.

One student, from Northwestern was doing budgeting calls with the client a week after the program. She knows the value of these skills. They might be 300-level undergrad in difficulty, but if you never learn them, you’re a source of friction in the value chain.

KJ: Do you see IFLP as part of a broader trend in the legal industry? What do see as the next “big thing”?

BH: We’re seeing a shift from a one-to-one consultative legal services model to a hybrid, one-to-many model. Consultative skills will still be powerful, but we’re going to end up relying on legal products like expert systems to handle a growing share of legal work. The problem is, lawyers dramatically underestimate how much things can be broken down into pieces and parts. Fintech figured this out a while ago. But I’ve seen litigation practices broken down into 700 steps. You can use that for pricing and applying technology. Clients aware of operational principles would want that. They’ll also want talent who understand the benefits of those principles — which is where IFLP comes in.

KJ: Ok, last question. From where I sit, I know that with all these changes coming, if you don’t adapt you won’t exist. But from where you sit, what do you see as the industry’s biggest obstacles in adapting to these new innovations?

BH: Well, these things always take time. Even in physics, to go from Newtonian to quantum took a full generation, even the young and old physicists had access to the same data and research. It proved to be too big a paradigm shift for some to make. And those are scientists! Lawyers are probably not going to move faster than that.

On the law school side, there’s quite a bit of innovation bubbling up, but the challenge is that these pockets of innovation can’t create a narrative that supplants the Socratic method that’s been around for 100 years. This is why we wanted to create IFLP — we need to build out a body of knowledge, and don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel at each new law school we work with.

From the law firm perspective, we may have the technology and some of the principles down, but what we lack is the business model to wrap it around. There’s a learning curve to this stuff. Many lawyers believe we have a cost problem, when it’s really a productivity problem. But progress is being made. I’d say 15 percent of the law firm market is interested in hiring out of the program.

Again, though, I think it has to start with corporate clients. For change to come, they have to stand up and say this stuff is important. Then, law schools (and law firms) will listen.