“The Grand Challenges serve as a ‘North Star’ for collaboration…” 
 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

The Problem: Our legal system and profession are in tumultuous times, with the decade ahead undoubtedly an inflection point of change for practicing lawyers, judges, law school deans and professors, law students as well as the lives of those utilizing or in need of access to legal services. The factors driving this change are becoming ever more difficult to ignore:

1. Even though law school applications are declining, more and more law students are finding employment after graduation difficult, if not impossible, to attain. The breadth of employment opportunities once available to law school graduates is greatly reduced, all while salaries are stagnant, or even decreasing.

2. Recent law graduates are facing the highest levels of student debt in history, all while the sources of student loans decrease and the possibility of obtaining such loans becomes increasingly difficult for many and impossible for some.

3. Private practice business models and structures are in a time of stress and transition and seem unable to adapt to the challenges of the times.

4. Law schools are being pushed to better provide young lawyers with a diverse range of skills that enables them to “hit the ground running”; either because for many law grads their primary employment option is to start their own firm, or for those who are lucky enough to join an existing practice, the firm (or the firm’s clients) will no longer pay for their practical training.

5. As more and more legal work is outsourced abroad, American law graduates are further disadvantaged, which likewise undermines our ability as a nation to remain a central player in the global economy.

6. Despite a host of unemployed or underemployed lawyers, for most of the populace the availability and affordability of legal services decreases year by year, with recent estimates putting legal services as inaccessible to over 85% of the population.

7. While other service industries ranging from banking and investing to travel and shopping have figured out ways to use technology to dramatically increase access to their services at a lower cost and with less complexity for consumers, the legal services industry stands almost alone when it comes failing to harness the power of technology to transform itself and access to legal services.

8. The speed, interconnectedness and complexity of the modern digital world can, at times, seem to challenge the role of law in our society, not to mention the impartiality of our courts and the “guardian” role traditionally played by lawyers.

A Proposal: There has been no shortage of conferences, articles, and seminars that have looked into one or more of these issues.  To date, however, there has been no systemic, holistic approach to examine the entirety of the legal system/legal services field and to outline the “grand challenges” for the law and the legal profession, which if not addressed could compromise access to legal services, effect the manner and role law plays in our society, and reduce the quantity and quality of the individuals entering (or staying in) our courts and the legal services profession. If we are to keep our legal system and our profession on a sound foundation, these momentous problems demand attention from our most creative, insightful and inventive minds.

As the nation’s largest and leading bar association, the ABA has the opportunity (if not the obligation) to tackle these major problems in a comprehensive and ongoing manner and with the input and support of other significant players, including those outside of the profession. In this regard, the ABA should follow the model utilized by the Grand Challenges in Global Health and by the Grand Challenges for Engineering.   Both of these professions in their own unique ways, brought together a wide array of individuals to discuss, debate and agree on the most important issues facing their profession/industry, which if addressed could dramatically improve their field of endeavor and society in general.

By identifying and agreeing on the key challenges needing to be addressed, they crystalized the issues for their own profession, they provided a vehicle for continued discussion around a given issue or set of issues, they better understood the relationships between various challenges they were facing, and perhaps most importantly, they provided the challenges as a vehicle to foster discussion and innovation, both from inside and outside their profession. Their goal was not to single-handedly solve the issues, but rather to coalesce a wide array of forces aimed at innovating, funding and reforming around given set of agreed to priorities.

A Possible Process: In order to have broad buy-in, the ABA could form a “Grand Challenges Task Force” which would convene a series of meetings around the country, attended by leading providers of legal services, practicing lawyers and managing partners, judges, law school deans and faculty, in-house counsel, technologists, sociologists, economists and consumer advocates to drive a discussion aimed at identifying the Grand Challenges for the legal system and profession.

The Task Force would provide each regional meeting with both background information and data on the issues that are of upmost concern to the ABA (dropping law school applications, retirement from practice of the baby-boomers, high legal fees, stagnant business models, lack of affordable access to the majority of the population, challenges to the impartiality of the legal system, etc.) along with a rough framework of possible Grand Challenge areas for each regional meeting to consider.

The regional meetings would report back to the Task Force on the various Grand Challenges they identified as well as the information and reasoning that led them to select their respective Challenges. The Task Force would then take the input from the various regional meetings and would reach consensus on the final Grand Challenges that the ABA and the profession would adopt and which would be the focus of their efforts in the coming decade.

Each Grand Challenge so identified would have a subcommittee that would monitor progress and developments, encourage continued attention to and innovation on the Challenge, and report back to the broader bar on a regular basis as to their particular Challenge, including on new innovative approaches and solutions to their given issue(s). The Grand Challenges would also be published and discussed with the broader public so as to bring the broadest array of talent and resources to bear on the issues as well as to communicate to the broader public what the profession is doing to make the legal system and the legal services industry a proficient 21st century institution.

Possible Categories of Grand Challenges: Possible broad categories of Grand Challenges for Law could include:

Challenge Area #1 — Transforming Legal Education.

Challenge Area #2 — Increasing (or given baby boomer retirements, at least maintaining) the number of active legal practitioners.

Challenge Area #3 – Evolving New Practice/Business Models.

Challenge Area #4 – Increasing Access to Basic Legal Services.

Challenge Area #5 – Embracing Technology.

Challenge Area #6 – Simplifying the Law and Legal Transactions.

Challenge Area #7 – Increasing Access to/Improving the Courts.

Challenge Area #8 – Maintaining an independent Judiciary and Independent Lawyers in an Increasingly Interconnected and Polarized World.

Maybe the legal profession is a bit like the age-old story of the blind men and the elephant.  We each see the problem from our own, very unique perspective, that at times seems wholly at odds with what our colleagues in different areas of the profession are experiencing and describing.  Maybe the time has come for us to come together, describe our unique experiences, and then paint a complete picture of the challenges before us.  It may be the best first step in addressing the profession’s daunting issues.

One thought on “The Grand Challenges for Law

  1. Marty –

    This is an exceptionally grand vision. One – in my very humble opinion – worthy of both broad publication and pursuit.

    In dealing with my own “nano-niche” of Neighbors Law, I have come to realize that many of our courts are unduly saddled with trivial contests of litigation for matters which the better deployment of technology could much more quickly assist resolve.

    Technology might further assist to avoid those trivial contests altogether. This then would allow valuable judicial resources as well as those of litigating attorneys to be focused on resolution of the multiple and multi-faceted new conflicts which the rapid change of technology creates.

    The world doesn’t need less lawyers … It needs more. But as lawyers we need to be sufficiently humble to recognize we must better collaborate with people practicing in other fields of endeavor … and do so gracefully!

    Perhaps most importantly, it is important for lawyers to continue to recognize their role in assisting to hold together America’s cultural cannon.

    America’s cultural cannon – which while appearing so divided between conservative and liberal politics – is rather slight when compared to the differences between America and others.

    (Notably, I speak from deep personal experience in this regard … but only with respect to China),

    As such, I believe for a challenge of this magnitude to have any hope at success, both elephant and donkey must be yoked and pull toward its success.

    I sincerely hope that may happen. Though it may sound trite to those who have limited to no international experience, if the ‘American Experiment’ fails, who will then pick up the torch?

    – Bob Zierman

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