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Innovation in Practice

November 17, 2023

Students reach across disciplinary boundaries to reimagine our legal institutions in Penn Carey Law’s future-looking course, “Innovation in Practice.”

What would happen if we redesigned the entire legal landscape to center the experiences of the people who need legal services? How could the legal profession as a whole nurture lawyers, rather than lead to mental unwellness and burnout? How can we embed diversity, equity, and inclusion in our legal institutions?

These are just a few of the bold, pathbreaking questions that Jen Leonard L’04, Lecturer in Law, pushes students to answer in her course, “Innovation in Practice.”

“From a systems-wide standpoint, we designed these systems for lawyers to use. We take great pride in mastering the rules, mastering the strategy around using those rules to our clients’ advantage, and making novel legal arguments that advance our clients’ needs,” Leonard said. “But our systems still focus mainly on lawyers, and we need to share the spotlight with the people we serve.”

Identifying Systemic Barriers

After working as a lawyer for 10 years, Leonard entered legal education around the time of the Great Recession, teaching courses in the business of law. At the time, she recalled hearing many conversations commenting on how the legal sector needed to implement giant, sweeping changes—and yet, she was frustrated by how little change seemed to actually be happening.

Jen Leonard L'04 Jen Leonard L'04In particular Leonard noticed that these conversations often occurred in a markedly mono-disciplinary bubble, which seemed limiting. Curious, Leonard began reaching out to folks in other professional sectors that had seen major, industry-wide change.

“I was interested in how we could think about how other industries have changed, because all the conversations that I was hearing were being led by lawyers,” Leonard said. “Lawyers have a valuable—and obviously essential— perspective, but it’s just one perspective.”

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Problem-Solving

As she continued to explore these questions with the Future of the Profession Initiative, Leonard started to collaborate with colleagues across the University of Pennsylvania.

Weitzman School of Design Lecturer Mikael Avery served as a key partner in helping Leonard to create the interdisciplinary “Innovation in Practice” syllabus. The class introduces students to a human-centric design model, which they use to think through real solutions to significant problems embedded in the legal industry.

Mikael Avery Mikael Avery

In doing this work, Leonard finds inspiration from many places, including the University’s founder.

“Ben Franklin had two major pillars when he created the University of Pennsylvania. One was interdisciplinary connections and all the things that those connections can unearth and the value that they can unlock. The other was translating high-minded intellectually rigorous research for real world impact,” Leonard said. “That’s what we have the capacity to do as a school by extending our hand to other professions and saying, ‘please help us redesign these systems so that we can take everything we’re doing and make it mean something in the real world,’ because there are millions of people that need us who we don’t help at all.”

Engaging in Real Solutions

Leonard begins the course by helping students to wrap their minds around the scale of several issues, including those related to access to justice, attorney well-being, and diversity in the profession. Avery and other guest speakers join the class to engage students in discussions that incorporate a variety of perspectives, allowing students to inform their understanding with input from multiple disciplines.

Throughout the semester, the students think a lot about the physical spaces in which the law operates.

For example, in 2021, Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that concluded that the plaintiffs in Philadelphia’s Municipal Court—mostly banks and credit card companies—were much more likely than the defendants—mostly individuals—not only to have a lawyer, but to win their cases. Leonard guides her students in responding to these findings using principles of human-centric design thinking. When the class visits the Philadelphia Municipal Court, Leonard encourages them to imagine what it would be like to enter this space without a lawyer.

“It’s been so eye opening to me,” Leonard said. “It’s also been sort of stunning to see how neglected the client and litigant perspective has been. By and large, there’s not a huge emphasis on deeply understanding that perspective and developing innovative responses that make things simpler, more transparent, and more user friendly so that people can actually solve their legal problems in the context in which they’re doing it, which is mainly without lawyers.”

During the initial information-gathering stage of human-centric design thinking, students practice taking “empathy interviews.” For Leonard, learning to center the experiences of those who need legal services – rather than those who are providing them—is crucial if the legal profession is committed to effecting long-term change.

As the course progresses, students collaborate to identify and define specific problems, then ideate solutions to them. In the final stage of the course, they pitch their solution to a multi-disciplinary panel of judges, who provide feedback.

Cultivating Creative Advocates

In addition to re-tooling the legal industry to center the experiences of the clients, Leonard also wants to work to improve the experiences of attorneys. This includes working to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in all settings; moreover, it also means ensuring that attorneys, who have historically experienced rates of mental illness at rates comparatively higher than many other industries, are equipped and supported in taking care of their mental wellness.

To offer one tool students might practice to support their well-being, Leonard begins each class with five minutes of mindfulness practice. In addition to mindfulness being an accessible way to lower stress, research that indicates that it can help bolster creativity—an imperative aspect of innovation.

“Lawyers are hired for one thing and one thing only: their brains,” Leonard said. “We’re not weightlifters or Olympians. We have to figure out ways to take better care of our minds.”

Learn more about the pathbreaking work of the Future of the Profession Initiative.