Penn Law Launch New Project on the Future of the Legal Profession

The University of Pennsylvania Law School’s new Future of the Profession Initiative aims to position students and alumni for the legal profession of the future, while also helping improve access to justice.

Can a law school, with the help of alumni attorneys and entrepreneurs, figure out how best to train the next generation of lawyers and improve the profession as a whole?

The University of Pennsylvania Law School is banking that it can. The Philadelphia school has launched what it calls the Future of the Profession Initiative, which aims to pursue innovations not only in how new lawyers are produced, but how law is practiced and who it helps. Unveiled Tuesday, the initiative is debuting with a slate of programs that include an executive education academy for alumni who are five years out of school, a podcast centered on the changing profession, an innovation competition and a symposium in February that will bring leaders from across the profession together to discuss the future of law.

“Change in the legal field is accelerating as technology evolves, new entrants join the industry, the practice of law becomes more globalized, regulatory frameworks governing lawyers shift, and attorneys approach their careers differently,” said Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger in an announcement of the initiative. “As a result, law school applicants, students and graduates are thinking in new ways about how they imagine their careers, underscoring the need for a solution that promotes innovation, thought leadership, and enhanced interdisciplinary education and engagement.”

Defining the mission and scope of the initiative is an ongoing challenge for its founders, which includes Jennifer Leonard, the law school’s chief innovation officer and the initiative’s executive director. That’s due in part to the fact that the initiative is a work in progress and its focus and programming will change over time. Some of its projects will prove successful, while some will fail—a reality that its leaders say they are comfortable with. But at its core, the initiative is intended to bring all of the law school’s innovation efforts under one umbrella, tap into the university’s larger innovation resources, and identify ways to help Penn Law students and alumni develop professionally throughout their entire career.

But the initiative has larger, profession-wide goals as well, namely improving access to justice through innovation. The focus isn’t solely on technology, which helps differentiate Penn’s program from some existing innovation centers at other law schools.

“This is designed to set us up for the next 50 years of the changes that we’ll see in the future,” Leonard said in an interview Monday. “That’s why we named it what we did: We want it to be broad enough to be nimble and adapt because certainly the changes we see today will be different from the changes we’ll see five, 10, and 15 years from now. This initiative will be structured in a way that allows us to adapt to those changing conditions.”

The initiative will kick off with a number of defined projects, which will be added to and subtracted from depending on their levels of success, Leonard said. Among them is the Five-Year-Out-Academy, in which Penn alumni who graduated five years ago can return to campus for a free week of executive education, including instruction on legal project management, negotiation skills, well-being for lawyers, law firm finance, cross-cultural competency, leading teams, strategic decision-making and client-centered design.

The school will also host a symposium in February with a broad range of legal thought leaders to discuss the future of the legal profession and create an upper-level interdisciplinary seminar course called “Innovation in Legal Services: Design Thinking to Optimize Client Service.” And the new Dean’s Innovation Competition will offer awards to entrants who identify new ways to deliver client services and close the access to justice gap.

The initiative and the first wave of projects were conceived with the help of an advisory board drawn from Penn Law alumni with a broad array of legal experience. They include Legal Services Corp. president Jim Sandman; Pro Bono Net’s Claudia Johnson; and Burford Capital managing director David Perla.

Perla said he wanted to be involved immediately, in part because the school’s reputation for fostering entrepreneurship for the greater good means the initiative already has many campus resources to draw upon. And the makeup of the advisory board ensures that many different perspectives are represented, he said.

“They picked people who did all sorts of different things with their degrees, most of whom no longer practice law,” he said. ““In some ways, we’re asking, ‘Can we make law better?’ And that’s really exciting to everyone.”