Frugal innovation in lawyer formation

More than a decade ago, in a post that captured the imagination of hardly anyone, I wrote about the need for “frugal innovation” in the legal services sector. Chief among the problems with the legal market, I said, is lawyers’ insistence on offering ever-more-elaborate services to ever-fewer people at ever-higher prices, ignoring the growing population with straightforward legal needs but little time or money to address them. Frugal legal innovators, I wrote,

will figure out the resource restrictions under which most people labour and will modify their products, services and delivery systems accordingly. They will relentlessly simplify and de-accessorize legal offerings, constantly asking themselves: Can we make this easier? Are there steps we could remove, features we could do without, elements that add cost without adding equivalent value? 

I trust this book is no longer than it needs to be.

Ten years on, I’m still waiting for the legal profession to recognize and meet this opportunity, although I’m encouraged by the success of consumer innovations like UpSolve and Hello Divorce.

But what I want to do in this post is apply the same reasoning to the lawyer formation process. What would frugal legal education and bar admission look like? What if we had only a very limited amount of time and money with which to train and licence new lawyers — how would we do it?

Let’s start by identifying the problem to be solved. Whatever its other merits and demerits, there are two things we can confidently say about lawyer formation in North America, in its current form:

1. It is too long. Hardly anyone believes that three full years of law school are necessary to provide foundational knowledge for the lawyer licensing journey. Most Canadian jurisdictions require an additional one-year articling term before admission, but that period of time is arbitrary: pandemic-shortened articling terms were deemed acceptable last year, and an alternative pathway in one province lasts just eight months.

To be clear, I believe new lawyers need much better and more detailed preparation for their careers than we’re giving them; but we’re using the current allotted amount of time poorly. We don’t know how long it really takes to fully develop a lawyer, because we’ve never purposefully designed a unified, end-to-end lawyer formation system.

2. It is too expensive. The average US lawyer starts their career $145,000 in debt. For the average Canadian lawyer, the figure is at least $71,000. Licensing fees add to this burden. But the cost of lawyer formation is driven less by features intrinsic to professional development, and more by the business models of the institutions that oversee and administer education and licensure. Lawyer formation doesn’t require labs and chemicals and machine shops; but you wouldn’t know that from its price tag.

Most people need significant socio-economic advantages even to contemplate the possibility of a legal career and devote several years to its pursuit. If you are not independently wealthy, heavy debt will drive you into higher-paying jobs with intense billing pressures or force you to take on work outside your expertise, ultimately to your and your clients’ detriment. The barriers scattered throughout lawyer licensure have produced a legal profession that is disproportionately white. And I need hardly add that the foregoing system will not produce affordable legal services.

How can we fix this? One way forward would be to “frugalize” the lawyer development system. What if we placed strict time and budget limits on the process of developing lawyers? What if we maintained (or ideally, raised) our thresholds for qualification as a lawyer, but radically downsized the time and cost required?

Assume that someone wishes to become a lawyer, but has, say, only 18 months and $18,000 to do it. Under our current system, that’s simply not possible. So let’s come up with a system in which it might be. Here are a few ideas to get us started.

● Move law school online, period. Subtract from a legal education the institutional overhead, room, board, and travel costs of attending a university in person. Subtract the time inflation caused by adherence to the law school’s semestered teaching timetable and its insistence on one-to-many, physically proximate knowledge transfer. The result would be an at-your-own-pace online law degree (of which, thanks to the pandemic, we’ve already seen proof of concept), faster and radically less expensive than the current version.

● In the alternative, individual legal academics and practicing lawyers could sell standalone courses approved by regulatory authorities, accessible online 24/7 with built-in knowledge assessments, on a core of mandatory subjects plus many others. Students could assemble their own qualifying law degree from multiple providers, learning as their schedule allows from their chosen experts in their preferred areas. Let’s stop thinking of law school as “a place you go to” and start thinking of it as “a developmental experience.”

● Our current system makes students spend three years in a classroom before even glimpsing the life of a lawyer. Lawyer education and experience could instead be administered concurrently, not consecutively, saving time while enhancing learning. The online courses described above could be interspersed with asynchronous skills and training modules and simulated virtual practices relevant to each course subject — here is an outstanding example. Or combine this idea with the next one:

● During or after completion of this online trifecta, we would find ways for aspiring lawyers to swiftly and affordably gain in-person lawyer experience. Regulators could require practicing lawyers to offer unpaid four-month internships to duly-registered law students as a requirement of continued licensure. Or they could coordinate similar opportunities with legal aid or public interest organizations in the student’s home town or nearest city. The goal is to help students learn the law and experience the law simultaneously.

● A purely online experience would, however, fail to provide the socialization element of lawyer development, whereby aspiring practitioners build friendships and networks by learning and working together. These elements have real value, so the frugal lawyer development process would require and help enable regular in-person (once the pandemic allows) meet-ups in larger communities, or Zoom sessions among more geographically dispersed students, or better solutions waiting to be invented. Distance legal education has a long history.

This is just the barest outline of what a frugal lawyer development system might look like — obviously it has gaps and flaws. But while some of them can be filled and fixed, others don’t need to be. Frugality, as I argued back in 2010, is not about doing the same things you did before, only more cheaply. It’s about re-envisioning what you’re trying to achieve and and re-engineering how you’re going to achieve it.

There’s a growing consensus that lawyer licensing requires radical reconsideration. So which elements of lawyer licensure add cost without adding equivalent value? Cavernous lecture halls in limestone buildings? Qualifying credentials burnished by a coat of arms and a football team? Hazing rituals disguised as entry examinations? You could probably assemble a pretty lengthy list just based on your own certification experience. Undertaking this effort collectively, as a profession, could lead to extraordinary advances in our theory and practice of bar admission.

The pandemic has already demonstrated that we can educate, train, and license lawyers differently than we did before. This is a golden opportunity to convert that temporary experience into a permanently better one.


  1. Lewis Eisen

    Are you being forward-thinking and innovative again? The legal profession is not built to withstand that kind of pressure.

  2. Mazyar M Hedayat

    All great ideas. Of course, they will never happen unless there is a radical change of circumstances – say, a pandemic that last for years coupled with a government decision to stop funding legal education they way it does now. Consider this: I wrote 20 years ago that the legal system represented one wasteful event after another (3 hours in court to get in front of the Judge for 15 minutes). I was literally derided for my observation. Now – Zoom. I think you get my point. Best of luck with that.

  3. Mike O’Horo

    Why the perceived need for “socialization, friendships and networks”? Where’s the data in support of such perceived need? Or, is that merely another longstanding habit that we’re clinging to? If we’re going to use a clean sheet of paper, let it truly be clean.
    The assumption seems to be that lawyers need such friendships and networks to enable business-getting. However, relationship-based business development is a vestige of the Seller’s Market that ended in 2008, replaced by a Buyer’s Market that will be the defining condition forevermore. Simply, it’s just not true that a personal relationship is predicate to doing business. Now, legal services are sourced and purchased the same way as all industrial goods and most consumer goods: buyers educate themselves about the problem and solution options online before being willing to engage with a salesperson. The latest data I’ve seen says that about 65% of that consideration process occurs online.
    Is it necessary to have personal relationships with realtors, car dealers, college admissions officers, or capital goods manufacturers before making those major purchases? No. You may end up with a trusted, preferred relationship with a solution provider as a result of multiple successful purchases, but that’s a consequence, not a predicate.
    Just because lawyers got habituated to relationship centrism doesn’t mean that’s the optimum way to do it. Not knowing any better isn’t a validating trait.

  4. Mazyar M Hedayat

    I agree with Mr. O’Horo’s point in theory. There are only 3 problems:

    1. Any view of the legal profession is like light from a star. It takes so long for trends to surface that by the time they do they are already old news.

    2. The profession is a closed system run by fearful agents (Judges, Lawyers, Law Schools) for the benefit of other fearful agents. The Web actually made it possible 25 years ao to gather relevant information and connect with a legal provider. So,why hasn’t the WWW eaten our lunch? See item 3.

    3. Law is largely, but not entirely, transactional. I can tell you from first-hand experience that anonymous online legal evaluations (from, say, Google) are less “sticky” or lucrative as a person-to-person referral.

    Feel free to disagree.

  5. Mike O'Horo

    1. Disagree. That may have been true for all but the past 15 years. However, industry data is accumulated constantly and analyzed using sophisticated BigData and AI techniques. Trends are visible quickly.
    2. Agree that it’s a closed system as you describe, however, I disagree that the WWW hasn’t eaten lawyers’ lunch. That may be a view held by those who have remained on the sidelines, but the buying behavior data says otherwise. If you’re not part of the online conversation, you don’t exist. Sure, you’ll still get referrals from those who’ve long referred you — if they happen to think of you at the time that they need to take action. There’s no way for you to measure the call you didn’t get. If you’re not top of mind for the issue, they’ll reach out to whomever is. Later, if they have a “V-8 moment” and realize that you do that work, they’ll feel bad, but the work will be gone.
    3. There’s some confirmation bias here. The standard against which to compare isn’t “anonymous online legal evaluations” vs. F2F referral. It’s F2F referral vs. being forgotten. Your risk isn’t that someone will say, “Mazyar Hedayat? No, I don’t think I’ll call him.” The risk is, as in #2, that they don’t think of you until it’s too late because you don’t own any relevant mental real estate with them.
    The era of everything being based on relationships is long over. Buyers have more relationships with lawyers than they have demand for legal services. Each year, that problem becomes more acute as more and more of the legal solution goes to offshoring, automation, and “in-housing.” The traditional legal service pie, with lawyers at the center, is shrinking, and will continue to do so. Bespoke legal services, and their staggering cost, will claim a smaller and smaller share as alternatives become more sophisticated, cheaper, and easier to use and manage.

  6. Mazyar M Hedayat

    You’ve provided spirited defenses; but, when asked how he refuted the Cartesian argument that life was an illusion, Dr. Johnson declared “I refute it thusly” and kicked a rock. Elegant arguments are no match for the reality of gravity. Rumors of the death of the current, inefficient legal model have been greatly exaggerated (apologies to Samuel Clemens). I should know. 20 years ago I very publicly promised to eat the lunch of every big-shot litigator in my county. Instead, those lawyers continued doing business with one another and freezing me out, despite technical superiority and a progressive stance. So yes, I want to believe more than anyone that lawyers can rise above narrow self-interest and do what is best for the profession and our Clients. But, have you ever seen that happen?

  7. Mike O'Horo

    You’re mixing a few issues here.
    First, if you’re going to market based on claims of technical superiority, you’re defeated before you begin. Such claims can’t be validated convincingly, even after the work is done (after all, the person you claim to be better than didn’t do the work in parallel for comparison), and not on the front end.
    I encourage you to read “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It’s a quick, entertaining read, and you’ll recognize every brand experience referenced. Their point: There’s no such thing as “better,” only “different.” Some people will deem your flavor of difference to be better, others won’t. But you’re not the arbiter.
    Old school marketing and sales was based on pursuit. The modern version of both is based on attraction. Marketing is communicating a clear stance about an issue that affects a specific group of people who are members of a class, e.g., in the same industry. The purpose isn’t to persuade, but to enable those who already agree and are aligned with your thinking (what Seth Godin calls “your tribe”) to recognize that alignment, and to choose to engage with you. A percentage of those will choose to discuss their issue with you, and a percentage will hire you. If the first number, i.e., the pool of associated people, is large enough, the math makes it difficult to fail if you’re disciplined and consistent with sustained messaging in channels they respect.
    Likewise, sales isn’t about persuading, either. Instead, it’s about helping buyers make a well-informed decision that will stand up to subsequent scrutiny, without regard to your self-interest. You’re invested in the legitimacy of the decision, not the content of it. You don’t care if they say “yes” or “no.” Your allegiance is to getting a decision. If you’ve done the marketing correctly, you’ll only be facilitating decisions among people who have formulated an “idea relationship” with your thinking, and who are already positively disposed to you. “No” is infinitely preferable to “no decision,” which consigns you to gratuitous and frustrating followup in perpetuity.

  8. Mazyar M Hedayat

    Mr. O’Horo

    We could keep up this discussion indefinitely. In fact, I used to do just that – I fielded a blog on the subject of law practice innovation, chaired a bar association committee on the topic, and still do (although in a different county). For now I need to get back to work; but I followed you on LinkedIn. Let’s see what other interesting notions you have to share. I look forward to reading more of your content.

  9. Mike O'Horo

    Yeah, it’s easy to get caught in a rabbit hole. But, all in all, an enjoyable indulgence.

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