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Law School’s Future of the Profession Initiative leads efforts to expand access to justice

February 22, 2021

Jennifer Leonard L’04, Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director the Future of the Profession Initiative (FPI) at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, calls FPI the Law School’s “recognition that the legal profession — like many professions — is undergoing a period of enormous change and that a leading law school has an opportunity and obligation to lead through that change.”

And the changes in the legal profession right now are, indeed, many. One of the biggest adjustments, Leonard said, concerns regulatory reform.

“The regulations governing lawyers have had the effect of restricting the ways individuals can connect with the legal system,” she said. “FPI aims to advocate for changes to our regulatory structure that will expand access to justice, allowing more individuals to secure the legal help they need.”

To this end, three members of the FPI team have recently launched new curricular offerings focusing on access to justice issues. This past fall, Leonard taught “Innovation in Practice: Design Thinking for Lawyers” for the first time. The course borrowed templates of understanding from fields including architecture, engineering, and business to design better ways to deliver legal services to small business owners.

Inaugural Innovator in Residence Miguel Willis is currently teaching “Law, Technology, and Access to Justice” with FPI Advisory Board Member Claudia Johnson L’97. Willis said that the course “aims to inform students of the changing landscape of technology within legal services delivery and how it can be applied to facilitate innovation in the justice system.” Students will gain hands-on experience designing solutions to real-life legal services delivery problems.

Senior Consultant Jim Sandman L’76 is teaching “Leadership in Law,” a course that, according to Sandman, “begins the process of preparing and training law students to be leaders.”

“Lawyers occupy leadership positions across many segments of American society — not only in law firms, corporate legal departments, and public interest organizations, but in public service, business, academia, and a variety of non-profit organizations,” and yet “lawyers often come to leadership positions with less preparation and training than leaders in other disciplines,” said Sandman.

To remedy this discrepancy, students in Sandman’s course will study topics including “leadership styles, decision-making, achieving and exercising influence, managing change, strategic thinking, diversity in leadership, organizational dynamics, moral leadership, effective communications, and conflict management,” he said.

Sandman has also “been working tirelessly to advocate in favor of expanded access to justice,” said Leonard. He and Willis recently signed letters urging the Biden transition team and leaders on Capitol Hill to create an Office of Access to Justice within the U.S. Department of Justice. Originally launched by the Obama Administration in 2010, this access to justice initiative “had an ambitious mission to help the justice system more effectively and efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth, race, or status,” said Willis. The initiative was suspended by the Trump Administration.

At least one of Sandman’s students has already been inspired to join the access to justice fight. Bridget Lavender L’21, who took Sandman’s “Professional Responsibility” course during the summer of 2020, was aware of the access to justice problem before enrolling, she said, “but my thinking about the solution was relatively limited. Better funding for legal aid? Right to counsel laws? Then on day one of Professional Responsibility, we read and talked about the potential for regulatory reform to address this problem.”

Sandman also brought Justice Constandinos Himonas of the Utah Supreme Court in as a guest speaker to talk to the class about his pioneering work expanding access to justice in his state.

“I was really impressed with Justice Himonas,” said Lavender. “I really liked how he conceptualized access to justice and his role, and also just thought he seemed like a great guy — very friendly, kind, willing to speak with us, and passionate about things I am passionate about.”

That shared passion led to a job offer for Lavender — she will be clerking for Himonas after graduating.

“As a public interest law student looking to clerk, I remember googling ‘Justice Himonas clerkship’ immediately after Professional Responsibility that day.” She wrote about access to justice in her cover letter and was surprised and excited when Himonas told her during her interview that access to justice work would occupy up to 50% of her time as a clerk.

“It’s important to him that he has clerks who really care about that work, and don’t just see it as a burden or some side project,” Lavender said. “I really am excited to work with someone who is so innovative in re-thinking our existing structures and is trying new things to address this existing, pervasive problem.”

Leonard pointed to Lavender’s clerkship as “a great example of the ways Jim, Miguel, and I hope to connect students to leaders and opportunities in the legal profession that advance FPI’s aims. Without Jim’s education of students on the need for regulatory reform and the access to justice crisis, Bridget and Justice Himonas would not have met and the Law School would not have had the opportunity to graduate its talent to work for a judge at the forefront of the access to justice movement.”

Read more about the FPI and its initiatives.