Welcome the Flipped Lawyer

Time and tide wait for no man” (Geoffrey Chaucer). Or for no lawyer [male or female]. 

Change is afoot in the legal profession, and lawyers are trying to figure out how to react to it. But the legal industry isn’t the only profession facing change.

Jonathan Reese of Colorado State University-Pueblo recently wrote about changes in the education sector on The Kernel. He describes the introduction of MOOCs and flipped classrooms as a form of “professional suicide.” The premise behind both of these is the responsibility for learning shifts to the students, who watch video lectures on their own time and focus instead in class on discussion and exploration.

Ready made packages allows professors to “unbundle” themselves, and provide content to instructors elsewhere who use lectures of another professor to provide background material. The challenge with this unbundling which Reese points out is that school administrators can pay graduate students or adjunct professors less to do the job – or perhaps, one day automate the other teaching components with computer programs,

In short, once you’ve begun the great unbundling, it might be rather difficult to bundle yourself back together again—particularly in an environment where universities are pinching every penny until it yelps. And meanwhile, faculty everywhere are the targets of Silicon Valley education disruptors who are all out to make a buck at the expense of our prerogatives and even our very employment. Keeping that in mind, it might be smart for us not to make things any easier for them.

Unbundling is also occurring in the legal profession. There are similar concerns among lawyers, namely that flipping the responsibility for the file to the client ultimately leaves them with less work and less billings.

These concerns are not without merit. Although unbundling potentially makes legal services more cost effective, those costs are the current revenue streams for practicing lawyers.

But there are also some important differences between the unbundling occurring in education and the type of unbundling we envision in law. Education is highly centralized, providing services through a small number of institutions. In contrast, legal services are high dispersed, and typically more removed from government funding and subsidies that the education sector enjoys.

If anything, this makes the prospect of greater unbundling in law more certain, given the incentive for private enterprise and innovative practice. The lawyers who continue to row against the tide of change will see their revenues drop regardless as they become increasingly obsolete as compared to their competitors who are providing free and informative services online. As Reese states, “…it is very hard to compete with the Internet.”

The hype over MOOCs in 2012 hardly materialized, largely due to high dropout rates, and the finding that most participants already had formal education. Those most interested in taking an online education course are those who have taking offline education courses in the past. MOOCs did not democratize education as envisioned.

Where we may find greater success is in MOOC equivalents for the public – detailed, substantive and procedural courses in the law, which provide public consumers of legal services the background they need to complete all or most of their legal transaction or litigation.

Instead of CPD for the lawyers, we would essentially be providing CPD for the public. The public would then only secure the legal services they need, unbundled or otherwise. For many, they would be able to use Alternative Dispute Resolution services such as mediation instead, and just procure Independent Legal Advice of a settlement agreement.

These MOOCs could be sold for a fee by law firms, or provided for free by the government. The investment into this type of legal education would save our court system countless dollars, and would be a better investment than the creation of new courthouses and appointment of more judges. Instead of penny pinching on Legal Aid, we can pinch from the unnecessary time and energy lawyers already spend educating their clients about the law, or completing routine tasks that they would be able to do with some simple instructions.

Public consumers are already far more sophisticated and informed than they were in the past, and it’s more important that the legal education they find is accurate and helpful. “A rising tide doesn’t raise people who don’t have a boat. We have to build the boat for them” (Rahul Gandhi).

Where does that leave the lawyer? For the chosen few, there will be a role in researching, preparing and delivering these public education programs.

For the rest of us, we will just have to learn how to provide “flipped” legal services.


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