Guest: Gabriel Teninbaum, Legal Technologist & Professor at Suffolk University Law School
Episode 67: Embracing Technology & Innovation to Effectively Deliver Legal Services
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Gabriel Teninbaum, a professor and legal technologist at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. He’s a professor of legal writing, Director of the Institute on Legal Innovation and Technology, and Director of the Legal Innovation and Technology concentration. He’s been called perhaps the most tech-savvy law professor in the country by the ABA Journal, which named him to the list of the top 100 legal professionals to follow on social media. Gabe, welcome to the program.
Gabriel: Thank you for having me, Sharon. It’s an honor to be here with you.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. Gabe, can you tell us about your career path and what led you to focus on legal innovation?
Gabriel: Absolutely. I have a career path that’s probably different than most law professors. When I graduated from college, I went to work for the federal government. I spent several years in government service, including a few with the U.S. Secret Service. I went to law school at night after that, while I was working for the government, and then from there transitioned and worked in a law firm. It was a plaintiff’s side litigation firm in Boston. I worked there for a couple of years as an associate. It was a terrific job and a hard job, but one that I really enjoyed.
After that, Suffolk Law was kind enough to have me back, and I was hired back as a professor of legal writing. I taught the first-year legal research writing course exclusively for the first several years that I was here, and I’ve had some wonderful experiences. I’ve now been at Suffolk Law for 13 years. I’ve taught something like 10 or 11 different classes. For the last three or four years, I’ve taught exclusively in the space of legal innovation and technology, and the way I got there was, I was just interested in the topic. At the time, one of my colleagues, Andy Perlman, started up this thing that I now oversee. Andy and I would work informally on projects to try to get more technology at the law school to teach people things like Lean and Six Sigma and other engineering ideas that we thought might apply to law. Then Andy went and became the dean. I can’t call him Andy now; he’s now Dean Perlman. When he became dean, I took over the portfolio of the Legal Innovation and Technology Program, so for the last couple of years I’ve been doing that. Every year we seem to add something to it, and that’s how I got to where I am.
Sharon: Did working for the government influence your attraction to legal innovation? Maybe it was inspired by seeing bureaucracy or inefficiency, or was it just that you already had that interest?
Gabriel: It’s an interesting question, Sharon. People have this stereotype about government bureaucracy, and at Secret Service I found that stereotype, at least there, wasn’t true. It was a group of very dedicated, hard-working people. We all have this idea of government workers as people who are watching the clock so they can go home at 5:00 and take every moment of vacation, and my experience was the opposite. It was people who were serious, dedicated, professional and smart, and wanted to do things the right way. There were a number of folks there that had ideas that became things that were actually applied to our work. So during my time there, we did do some work with unique technologies that have become more mainstream now, and it did get me thinking along this path.
Sharon: Did you have the idea of going to law school before you started in government, or was that something you saw and said, “Hey, that would be really useful if I want to advance”? What made you decide to go to law school?
Gabriel: I was working, of course, in a law enforcement capacity, and because of that I had some interesting overlaps with the way investigations worked and the overlap between the judicial system and law enforcement. I became interested in it while I worked for the government and I was lucky enough to find a program at night so I could do both things at once, which I did for several years. I had an informal deal worked out within my office that I wouldn’t travel during the academy year so much, so I could focus on classes. There were some reasons that became complicated and eventually I had to make the transition, but it was a job that dovetailed quite nicely with law school.
Sharon: It’s probably obvious in a sense, but why did you decide to be a plaintiff’s attorney as opposed to going into defense? Was that something you wanted to do from the get-go? What drew you to that?
Gabriel: A fair question. I got a job offer from a firm called Sugarman in Boston that’s now 98 years old. It’s the oldest firm of its type in Boston, and it has some of the best, most famous lawyers. They were kind enough to offer me a job as an associate and it was simply an offer I couldn’t turn down. By that point, I knew enough to know that litigation work was fundamentally similar across practice areas, and it was just a matter of learning from the people who were in the best position to teach me how to do things like deal with clients and take depositions and how to behave in court and how to put together a brief. Really, I could find no better mentors than the folks there. When they made me the offer, it was one I couldn’t refuse.
Sharon: I’m not familiar with the firm. Sugarman is a plaintiff’s firm—
Gabriel: It is, yes, the biggest of its type, and probably the most well-known of its type in Boston. Several of the partners were involved in important things like leadership in the State Bar Association, informing a trade group for plaintiff’s lawyers. They were seen as leaders in the community and they had the results to back it up. It was really an interesting opportunity.
Sharon: What lured you back to academia?
Gabriel: A totally fair question because there was a pretty significant pay cut, but I really like law school. For me, I was a person who—everything came together in law school and law school was a place that I enjoyed. I felt comfortable. I liked coming to class. I liked the challenges. I liked the pressure of exams. I liked everything about it. Everyone has that idea about the high school jock who goes back and becomes the gym teacher because they so enjoyed their high school experience. In some ways, that was law school for me. I just liked law school and that’s even though I was going part-time at night. It was something I wanted more of. I was really interested and am really interested in the functional work of lawyers, what lawyers do day-to-day and how to make people better at that. When I got the opportunity to take a job to train people how to do real, practical legal work, I jumped at it.
Sharon: Today, what draws your students to your class on legal innovation? Why do they want to be in that class?
Gabriel: One of the things we’ve been lucky enough to do is create an environment where students can learn how important it is to know about technology and innovation. From the very beginning of the academic year, from the orientation for new law students, we start talking meaningfully about what legal tools look like and the jobs that are trending up, what tools successful people are using, and the new methods people can learn about at Suffolk Law—that they might not have even heard of—that can help them in that space. Because we get law students thinking about it very early on, by the time they become second years, there are waiting lists to take these legal innovation and tech courses. I’d like to think I do a good job teaching them, but the reality is that if I handed off the curriculum to dozens of other people, it would be just as popular because our students have been taught to recognize the value of these things.
The other thing I’ll say is this: it’s fun. Unlike the traditional law class, where students read a whole bunch and brief a whole bunch of cases and deal with the Socratic Method and have one big exam, we do something very different. We introduce students to technologies and then we challenge them to build stuff. In a lot of instances, we allow and encourage students to follow their passions. If we’re teaching students how to do document assembly, we encourage them to go out and find a cause they care about, say a local legal aid organization, and rather than just build some hypothetical tool, to go work with that organization and build something they actually need. Students like that. It’s something that doesn’t happen a lot at law school.
The other thing is that we exercise creative muscles that aren’t traditionally exercised for law students. Today, for example, while breaking away from an all-day design challenge we have for our students—there are 40 law students, give or take, in the room. They’re all there for the day, even though they could be at home sleeping. It’s a Friday here. It’s not typically a school day and they could be home sleeping; they could be studying; they could be getting paid to work, but we have 40 of them who gave up their day to be at this competition because they want to learn about design thinking, because it’s fun, and it’s the sort of thing where they get to be creative in a way that law students wouldn’t traditionally. We communicate the basic message about the opportunities to students, and we have a positive feedback loop. They get to experience some of it. They like it and they want more of it, and that’s why the students take these classes.
Sharon: So you have design thinking. What other kinds of technology or things are you exposing them to in your legal innovation program?
Gabriel: We teach a number of classes and the idea is that we want to find people where they are. We have plenty of PhDs from MIT who come here and teach some of these classes, and then we have others who know nothing further than how to operate their iPhone. We have classes that introduce people to new technologies, like document assembly tools, like expert systems. We teach them some data analytics, sometimes using tools they already have on their computers, like Excel. We have classes that teach people about new business models for the delivery of legal services. We have a class I teach called “21st Century Legal Professions.” It talks about every way to deliver legal services, basically, other than billing hours or contingency. We have a class in process improvement, legal project management. The students leave that class with a yellow belt in Legal Lean Sigma. We have, of course, the design thinking class I mentioned. We have several classes that help people get their own practice off the ground. I’m teaching a class this fall called “Legal Tech for Small Firms,” which is exactly like you’d imagine. There’s a tool to help if you don’t have the resources to run because you’re a solo. How do you make it work? We teach people how to do that. To be honest, there are 15 or so others. Our course catalog is pretty robust. It’s a combination of faculty we have here that can take on a piece of it and really wonderful adjuncts which we have in spades, too.
Sharon: It sounds very attractive. Do you find people who say, “You know what? Forget this being a lawyer. This stuff is so much more interesting”? Do you find that more than the average school?
Gabriel: Every single year this happens. We’ll have students who will come expecting to be a prosecutor or an immigration attorney and they take a class and they say, “Well, how can I do this?” We sent off one of our recent grads this year who I’m really proud of. He got hired for the innovation team at Baker McKenzie and he moved off to Chicago. We have others who are at Davis Wright Tremaine and Denovo Group. We have someone who’s at an Am Law 200 firm in Philadelphia. All of these people came in, basically having never heard of these things and with no tech background.
Then we have all sorts of people who do interesting paths that you wouldn’t predict. They go and work for a legal tech startup or they start their own firm doing things that leverage the principles we teach in class, and they never envisioned this sort of stuff.
There’s one final category that’s pretty exciting. It’s the student who comes in and says, “I always wanted to do family law because I want to help people with adoptions,” whatever’s important to them, and then find a way to work that into their practice. One of my wonderful students was on the fence. She had offers to do legal tech work and she had offers to do traditional associate work from several firms. She convinced one of the firms that was really attractive to her to work out something interesting, where if she was billing 2,000 hours—I’m using a round number—1,500 of them would be billed towards traditional legal work; 500 of them would be billed towards legal innovation work within the firm, such as process mapping or employing a document assembly system to make them better. The firm thought it was terrific. She’s worked there for several years and everyone’s happy. We’ve had people come in predicting one path doing something totally different, and a few students who have come in predicting one path and then finding a way to meld this in.
Sharon: Wow! I really don’t know the law school world, but does your firm have this reputation? Do people say, “Hey, if you want to go to an innovative school or somewhere really cutting edge, this is the place to do it”?
Gabriel: Yeah, we’ve gotten some good press. The National Jurist, which is a magazine that goes to every law school in the country, ranked us the number one legal tech program. U.S. News doesn’t rank legal technology programs, but other publications such as ABA Journal have written pretty extensively about what we’re doing. The reality is that it’s wonderful to have that press, but the most important thing is that the students are getting results. The students graduate from this place and they have opportunities that just wouldn’t traditionally be available. We’ve hit some cool milestones; being ranked number one in the country at anything is a cool thing. The National Jurist is a big national magazine and we’ve probably been in ABA Journal half a dozen times in the last two years for this sort of work, but the most important thing is the results for students, and we’re hitting them.
Sharon: How much pushback do you get from people or students or faculty saying, “That’s wonderful, Gabe, but it’s not tested on the bar”? I can see all of the resistance.
Gabriel: A fair question—effectively none. When Dean Perlman first proposed the program, I think people identified him as someone who had been a successful faculty member, and it wasn’t drawing a lot of resources away from other programs, so why not try it? What’s happened over time is that people have seen two things: one, that it brings positive outcome for students, and two, that it’s made students better at thinking about problems they face in traditional practice.
Let me give you one brief example. Every law student has to figure out how the Erie Doctrine works in civ pro class. We’ve done an exercise where we have students draw, effectively, a decision tree about how a person would reason through the process of the Erie Doctrine, and then take that decision tree and make it a physical thing, write it on a piece of paper or use free online software. What it causes students to do is to have to ask questions and to have to revise and try to find edge cases to hone their understanding. Then, the thing we’ve done to take it to the next level is say, “O.K., now let’s turn this into an automated expert system, so that you as an attorney, making an Erie Doctrine analysis, could hand this over to anyone literate who works in the office and have that person answer questions about the case. Use your expert knowledge to come to an appropriate conclusion.” And what that does is teach students about how to think about legal problems, which is what we do in the legal practice skills program, and then how to make it so you can process them more efficiently. I’m not naïve enough to think there are a lot of lawyers making a living solving Erie Doctrine problems, but you get the idea. It’s taking underlying legal logic and applying it in a new way so that people can be more efficient.
Of course, we’ve seen this in other contexts. What Turbo Tax has done to the tax world is effectively create a giant expert system, where you can ask people a bunch of questions and it spits back a tax return, giving them a really good product at a really good price. That’s the sort of model we want people to think about as something that’s potentially appropriate to help with law. Faculty seems to get that and because of that, we get a lot of support.
Sharon: Among the many titles you have and areas you cover, one of them is professor of legal writing and one of the others is Director of the Institute on Innovation and Technology. What does legal writing have to do with all this innovation?
Gabriel: Legal writing is sort of a euphemistic term for the things a person needs to do to get ready to deliver legal services. In other words, what happens in a legal writing class isn’t really about writing. It’s more about thinking and analyzing information in new ways. When you get a new law student into a first-year practice skills class, which is the core first-year class legal writing professors teach, what you’re doing is teaching them how to approach legal problems, whether it’s to make an analogy or how to read an element-based text, and to help them process how to communicate the results to that. After that, you get into more advanced skills and you think about how you can best convey results to clients and opposing counsel and to judges. This is really where the rubber meets the road in between legal practice skills and legal innovation and technology.
I think of legal innovation and technology as a subset of legal practice skills. In other words, if you say, “What do I need to know, other than this doctrine, to actually provide legal services, to represent someone or to get summary advice?,” one of the things I’d say is that you need to know how to do so efficiently and effectively, which is where legal innovation and technology come in. In my current role, the two programs, if you will, are separate programs, but there’s a pretty significant overlap, and actually a pretty natural overlap between the two.
Sharon: That makes sense. What should law firms and lawyers and legal marketers be thinking about when it comes to legal technology and innovation? How can they help make their lawyers and firms less afraid of embracing this new stuff?
Gabriel: It’s a terrific question, Sharon, and this is actually something I think about a lot and I spend a lot of time on. I spend a pretty significant amount of time talking to law firms and law departments about innovation and technology, both running events and seminars for them and giving advice. At conferences and workshops, the most common question I get is some variant of what you just said: “How do I get people involved with this? How do I get up to speed on this?”
What we’ve done at Suffolk Law is created a way to answer that question. We have a relatively new program called the Online Legal Innovation and Technology Certificate. Basically, it takes the best of our JD program and it makes it available for legal professionals, because when people have traditionally asked me that question, “How do I get up to speed on this?” or “What should I think about this?,” my answer has always been something like, “Well, if you’re in Boston, come sit in on a class and get a sense for it,” or “Read this article or that article,” or “Follow this Twitter feed.” But to think about it more globally, it has to be something a bit more involved. We want legal professionals to include legal marketers, who are really an important part of the community, as well as other non-JD legal professionals, folks like law librarians. We want them thinking specifically about the tools that are going to make them and their organization better at their work. What are the process improvement methods that are going to make me and my organization better at my work? What are the new business models that will allow me and my organization to get better at our work? So we teach this program, and I think the best way to do it is to do it, which is to get off the plane where people are just thinking about things and into the plane where people are doing activity related to them. To use a metaphor, it’s a very different experience to read diagrams of how football plays look than to actually play football. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do both of those things as a younger person. It’s a truly different experience and the reality is that as much as you might want to diagram the play, and that gives you some insight into how it works, scoring the touchdown is really the experience that matters and counts and is memorable. I like it when people do stuff.
For some people, the Legal Innovation and Tech Certificate isn’t the right thing for one reason or another. The reality is that there are other opportunities out there for free that can help with some of that. So if someone wants to understand how data analytics could be used in legal work, you can go on YouTube and find a million different videos that help you do things as simple as make a pivot table to understand how to look at data differently. There are wonderful tools out there to help people understand the basics of expert system design. Actually, one of them was built by a colleague of mine, David Colarusso, called QnA Markup, and it’s at qnamarkup.org. It’s totally free. It’s open source and you can learn how to use it in 20 minutes or half an hour, watching a video on the site. It allows you to not just start thinking about how you might use an expert system to solve a legal problem, but also how to actually build it. That’s the most important thing in my view, to get people with an understanding of the principles, but then to actually apply those principles.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. It’s the same if you write a marketing plan. You can tell people how to market, but it’s in the execution, right?
Gabriel: That’s just it. You can have that conversation beforehand, but the actual conversation with the client or the end user is a very different experience.
Sharon: Right, exactly. Well, that’s very interesting. Do you think your time has come in terms of technology?
Gabriel: I think opportunities are accelerating. The ability to do really cool things for people who don’t have a deep background in innovation technology is better than it ever has been before. I think back to a couple of decades ago, when I graduated from college; it was a really, really good and lucrative job to build websites for companies. People built them from scratch from HTML and you really had to know HTML. Now, anyone can build a beautiful website, way better than we ever could make 20 years ago, for a $59 Squarespace subscription with no tech knowledge whatsoever. The reality is, as cool as that is in the web design space, that sort of advancement has happened across the gamut of technologies. People need to understand what they are and that’s one of the things I try to help people with. From there, they need to actually go out and build them. So the time has come more so than it ever has before, and it’ll continue to accelerate.
Sharon: That’s really exciting. It’s very exciting for people. I think about the fact that, yes, there was a point where, unless you were an IT or a computer technology person, your hands were tied, and you had to turn everything over to them. The world has changed, so what you’re doing sounds very interesting and exciting. Thank you so much for telling us about it.
To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you would like to contact Gabriel, Gabe, Professor Teninbaum, we will have his information in the show notes. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help move your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.
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