The New Year, Continued: Innovating

A third post in my brief “what the new year brings” series (part one is here and part two is here).

I’ve been asked by Pitt’s dean, Willliam “Chip” Carter, to chair a faculty task force on innovation in legal education.  I’m assured that we have carte blanche to investigate and propose virtually anything that we think that makes sense regarding the law school’s educational program.  (There may be things to consider that don’t involve the program as such, but I have to be mindful of our charge.)  I have no illusions about the ability of any law school, qua law school, to impose innovation on its faculty or about the ability of any faculty to innovate as a collective.  But innovate we must.  I am not a reluctant innovator, either in my own work or within the context of legal education.  Much that needs to be changed has needed to be changed for many, many years.  We are, in a sense, not letting a good crisis go to waste.  That’s a bit of rhetorical overkill.  Still, I am cautiously optimistic that our task force may come up with some useful ways to move our school forward, and maybe a lot of them.

The most interesting part of this project, and the real reason that I’m posting a reference to it, has to do with process.  I have done a fair amount of strategic planning and helped to build some great strategic plans (not, I should add, at a law school).  Successful strategic planners repeat the following mantra:  It’s the planning, not the plan.  But academic organizations are unaccustomed, let us say, to well-governed planning.  (Many will correctly hear an echo in that statement of Clark Kerr’s half-serious description of a university.)  In that spirit, I am always deeply suspicious of those law schools that have brought forth signature curricular reforms in the last few years — Washington & Lee, for example, and more recently the University of Denver and Case Western Reserve — while touting the fact that their faculties overwhelming jumped behind the moving train of innovation.  Near-unanimity is great PR.  But wait … a squirrel!  Law schools almost inevitably mask the difficult compromises and political choices and cultural conflicts that lie behind Big Sweeping Changes.

I want to look beyond the usual complexities.  Most of those are well-known:  seniority, tenure, pre-commitments to teaching packages, conformity to expectations about legal disciplines grounded in 19th century legal thought, the need to prepare students to take a bar exam, budgets and their organization, the demands of alumni and of the broader university (if one is in the picture), rent-seeking by different law professioral traditions.  To name just a few.  Instead, my perspective is this:  Any law school pursuing a new vision of itself needs to think about how to get from here to there.  How do we get over, around, or through those challenges, and many others, respecting the priorities that should be respected and discarding or reworking the others?  In our case, for example, what processes (note the plural) is our little group likely to follow?

We will, I suspect, pursue several tracks at once.  In part, we may build on our version of what Bill Henderson has referred to as the 12 percent.  That number (as a percentage of the overall curriculum, representing faculty members who are likely to be meaningfully interested in new approaches to legal education and willing to invest in their own innovation) strikes me as arbitrary, but the general idea is consistent with a steady drumbeat in the management literature regarding organizational change:  find the innovators (what biz types refer to as “positive deviants”), help them pilot new ideas, then support and reward them and eventually institutionalize their successes.  (Somewhere along the line, a vision of the future emerges and gets synthesized and documented, but one doesn’t start that process with a pre-determined vision.)  We will also look at models that built outward from the idea that legal education should produce graduates armed with some range of competencies.  (In other words, something of a vision-first-plan-later approach.)  Somewhere in there we should conduct some version of a SWOT analysis and look for ideas grounded in understanding our assets, opportunities, and challenges.  We’ll look at ideas at different scales, things that cut across the entire curriculum and things that affect only one classroom or field experience or blend, one hour or project or client at a time, and ideas in between.  There is bottom-up innovation and top-down innovation; there is no reason to prioritize one or the other if that means omitting interesting ideas based on good opportunities.  There is lots and lots of listening, both inside and outside the walls of the school.

Where will this lead us?  In terms of a plan, I really don’t know.  In terms of the planning, in a perfect world it would lead us to the point where idea of innovation and dynamism in our enterprise becomes, in the best (if not paradoxical) sense, fixed.  Along the way, the culture changes.  Will we get there?  Will it work?  The wild rumpus is about to start; undoubtedly there will be roaring of terrible roars and gnashing of terrible teeth.  How could there not be?   I’ll report back eventually, though if we succeed, do not be surprised to read an announcement down the line that the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law collectively and enthusiastically endorsed some Big New Thing.

Meanwhile, in addition to this, I am a member of our school’s appointments committee this year.  Pitt Law is badly in need of a patent law teacher and scholar.  We are badly in need of some other talents and skills, too, owing to retirements and reconfiguration and changing student interests, so I can’t predict with any certainty whether we will hire in IP or even whether we will hire at all.  We are hardly immune from the budget pressures that affect almost all American law schools.  But this is the first time in several years that I have been directly involved in hiring, and it will be interesting both to see from the front lines how the system has changed, including how the law school’s interest in programmatic innovation affects our hiring process and what we expect of new faculty colleagues.

We live in interesting times.