For people in their 40s or above, other than the occasional hardcore computer wonk or a legal tech professor, listening to students in Suffolk Law’s Accelerator Practice sounds like science fiction meets the law — from intake apps to Six Sigma process engineering.
Accelerator Practice student Michael Eidlin ’15 (top picture, on left) can see it in my eyes when his descriptions have gotten a bit too technical, so he simplifies with an example: “We’ve found that each time we’re doing intake for potential clients for the Accelerator Practice, we have to sit down and generate an outline of questions that we need to ask to assess whether we want to take on that client.
“Instead of rewriting the intake questions each time, we’re building an intake app for different types of complaints, housing conditions or consumer protection cases, for example. Since intake doesn’t always translate into billable work, the goal is to make it efficient and cut down on the need to re-interview a client due to missing information. The process ought to be as easy as an app on your iPhone.”
The basic idea animating the Accelerator is that law students across the country generally leave law school without the business skills needed to choose clients, market their firm, set fees and billing structures, and manage cases and the documents that go with them.
The three-year program combines coursework in the above-mentioned business elements of running a practice, including cutting-edge courses in legal practice technologies. It culminates with a year of work in the Law School’s embedded Accelerator Practice, where Eidlin and five other students have been working with supervision from seasoned attorneys.
Gerald Glover III ’15 (top picture, on right), one of Eidlin’s Accelerator colleagues, argues that lawyers need to be open to the idea that not all of the processes they undertake require a hand-crafted, custom-tailored approach. In wills and trusts, eviction and divorce cases, and consumer protection and insurance matters, among many others, an automated, standardized, tech-driven process makes the rote work a lot faster, allowing attorneys to take on more cases, he says.
One might wonder why the Accelerator students are so focused on organization and efficiency. Part of it, they say, is that the writing is on the wall: law firms of all sizes are being forced to adapt to the technological age, whether they like it or not. Another part is the structure of the Accelerator Practice, which will increasingly focus on fee-shifting cases.
In fee-shifting cases, Suffolk Law’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Clinical Professor of Law Ilene Seidman explains, the winning lawyer’s fees are paid by the losing side. In addition to donations from alumni and others, those collected fees will help run the Accelerator Program.
The New Niche Market
The Accelerator Practice takes as a given that there is a large group of moderate-income individuals who can’t afford an expensive firm, but whose cases are strong enough to merit the attention of a small practice whose attorneys can make a decent living handling mostly fee-shifting cases.
The ready availability of such cases makes sense. The American Bar Association and the Legal Services Corporation estimate that 85 percent of people in civil cases lack legal representation. It’s a nationally recognized problem called the “justice gap,” and the Accelerator helps address it.
“The statistics show the work is there,” says Eidlin, “but a firm taking on fee-shifting cases needs to be efficient and smart about how it chooses cases and in the systems by which those cases are managed. If we’re efficient, we can take more cases and it becomes a numbers game. The result is that you process enough cases to make a career by tapping into a large and mostly ignored market. And for me, I’m in the sweet spot if I can build a career that’s based around helping others.”
The Accelerator Practice students
Choose the right client
Accelerator students conduct initial client interviews and explain to their supervisors the strengths and weaknesses of a case and its financial viability. “For us it’s an added responsibility that you wouldn’t have in a traditional clinic,” says Glover, “but it’s an added benefit. We’re able to see the results of that work: how you get a client, how you keep a client, how to connect and communicate with a client, and those are important aspects. If there’s a question about the case, our supervisors ask us, because we know the cases inside and out.”
Since last September, Glover and Accelerator colleague Camila Valenzuela Araya ’15 have been working on behalf of a family forced from their apartment after they had a baby. Their rental had lead paint, and they claim that the landlord evicted them rather than comply with a law requiring removal of the paint in units with children under 6 years old. After six weeks researching the case, collecting evidence and preparing a settlement proposal, Glover and Araya presented their case before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
“It was really satisfying because after I presented and gave the opening statement, the hearing officer told us we were the most prepared attorneys she had ever seen. I said, ‘Can you repeat that so my supervisor can hear you?’ That was definitely a highlight of the year. That showed that we belonged.”
William Berman (above), a clinical professor of law and managing attorney for the Accelerator Practice, notes that more than 40 percent of Suffolk students go to small firms or open a solo practice. “Given that high percentage, we wanted a program where students learn the nitty-gritty of law practice management and the relevant technology.” The program, he explains, was established with a $250,000 donation from Suffolk’s Board of Trustees Chair Andrew C. Meyer Jr. JD ’74, HLLD ’99 and his wife, Kathleen Sullivan Meyer. The Meyer’s donation includes funding for a graduate law fellow who manages cases and helps supervise the students in the Accelerator Practice.
What do they want?
Gerald Slater, Suffolk Law’s assistant dean of professional and career development, has made a point of asking legal employers what they want in a recent graduate. “The answer is that they want students with business acumen and training, technological savvy, and practical lawyering skills—how to market a law firm, navigate a balance sheet, how you value legal services and create a billing and fee structure,” he says.
Slater, Seidman and Jeffrey Pokorak, vice provost for faculty and curriculum, brainstormed the Accelerator in 2014, with an eye toward creating a new kind of student who had a practical edge in the job market. Dean Camille A. Nelson helped them shepherd the program into existence.
Last year, Michael Haroz, a director at Boston law firm Goulston & Storrs, was selected by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission for one of its Access to Justice fellowships, through which experienced attorneys provide pro bono assistance to various populations.
Haroz says he chose to work at the Accelerator Practice—teaching business skills like billing—because he admires Suffolk’s commitment to train students who leave school with the wherewithal to join firms, or start new ones, focusing on moderate-income clients—people who, today, mostly go unrepresented at critical moments in their lives.
Haroz adds that the Accelerator presentations he’s seen on document assembly and client management systems have been eye-opening. Technological solutions that increase a law practice’s efficiency need to become part of the legal landscape, he says, especially for small firms that have never had IT departments to help them adapt.
Suffolk Law is one of the pioneers in teaching the types of adaptation that Haroz mentions; its legal technology programs have been ranked in the top 10 in the ABA’s Law Practice magazine. In addition to the Accelerator, the Law School’s tech programs include the Legal Technology and Innovation concentration, from which students can take core classes and electives, and the Institute on Law Practice Technology & Innovation.
The legal industry, though, has been slow to change, says William Palin JD ’12, a Suffolk Law adjunct professor who teaches the course Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines and is also a legal tech app developer. His app, PaperWork, is designed for Massachusetts’ Family and Probate Court and allows users to fill in, edit, save, share and sign important documents from a smartphone or tablet.
Technology “democratizes access to information,” says Slater and, according to Palin, that may explain why the law industry has been slow to embrace it. Some law firms are reluctant to “lose the cash flow from billing multiple hours on a simple document that, with technology, can be generated in minutes,” he contends. “The creation of a simple document shouldn’t be the critical and time-consuming element of the interaction. Instead it should be the attorney’s analysis and counsel.”
Not too long ago, legal futurist Professor Richard Susskind told Slater, “You know, you’re training students for 2065–they’ll be practicing for decades.” “We have no idea what 2065 will look like,” says Slater, “but you can’t train them for 1985, or 2000.”
Seidman notes that many law schools are developing incubator-type programs that students start after graduation to teach them how to practice law. “We thought it was important to do that while they were actually in law school.”
Michael Fisch is the editor of Suffolk Law Alumni Magazine and has been a regular commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition.