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How Northwestern Law's Innovation Lab Teaches Students to Think Differently

January 23, 2018

law school class
Esther Barron and Stephen Reed talk innovation in Savner Hall.

By Rachel Bertsche

In the Innovation Lab, students are tasked to use technology to address challenges in the legal system. Sometimes, says one instructor, that means turning law school lessons on their head.

A class with a name like "Innovation Lab" might seem more like a Shark Tank spin-off than a law school offering, but according to Neal Sales-Griffin, CEO of CodeNow and one of three instructors of the new Northwestern Law course, that’s the point. "Being a lawyer who understands innovation is a massive differentiator," he says. "You bring more to the table if you have an understanding of how technology can influence the future of your work and how it can enhance your work — or even, in some ways, inhibit your work. That perspective is a powerful tool to have in your toolbox."

Launched during the 2017 Spring semester, the Innovation Lab is a joint initiative of the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center (DPELC) and the Master of Science in Law (MSL) program, and it is intended to help students succeed in a technologically driven global economy. With a focus on the legal, business, technical, and design skills involved in the innovation process, it’s unlike most entrepreneurship courses. First of all, it includes software development and intro-to-coding components — which is to say, it’s about much more than how to represent a start-up. "While existing entrepreneurship courses tend to focus on hard skills and how to represent entrepreneurs, this class emphasizes creating an entrepreneurial mindset that will benefit students no matter what career path they choose," explains Esther Barron, clinical Professor of Law and Director of the DPELC, who teaches the course with Sales-Griffin and Leslie Oster, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of the MSL Program.

Neal Sales-Griffin teaching
Neal Sales-Griffin gives a lesson in entrepreneurship at the Innovation Lab.

During the course, which is the first to include participants from all programs in the Law School — JD, JD-MBA, MSL and LLM — students divide into teams and identify legal problems that can benefit from innovation. "There are so many opportunities to solve problems in the legal field with software and technology, and our class is designed to help students discover what those opportunities are and to come out of the experience having prototyped a solution, validated a need, identified a customer and perhaps even having started a business," says Sales-Griffin, who launched his first business (which recently raised funding at a valuation of more than $5 billion) when he was a Northwestern freshman. "When you teach someone who is practicing or studying law how to make things more efficient with software and technology, they are going to identify opportunities that a traditional programmer or engineer would never have occasion to see. That happens all the time when you teach people who have a domain expertise that isn't in software. It’s really inspiring."

In the inaugural semester, for example, student solutions included a platform to help small business owners with legal questions, a kiosk to help pro se litigants file court documents, and a platform to help first-year transactional attorneys at law firms gain experience. The semester-long work culminated in final presentations during which the student teams pitched their solutions to a panel of judges that included lawyers, law school faculty, and entrepreneurs.

Sales-Griffin, who teaches similar courses at the McCormick School of Engineering and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, notes that when it comes to classroom behavior, law students bring a unique mindset. "The students I’ve gotten to know at the Law School, there’s so much precision in their thinking," he says. "When you take that mindset and that degree of training and you apply it to something like entrepreneurship and starting a business, you get a level of efficiency and progress that really isn’t seen in a lot of other trades."

Of course, that precision can be a blessing and a curse. "There is a bit of attention to detail with law students that may be premature, because entrepreneurs are messy," he says. "We don’t always do everything right, we don’t always follow the rules, so I have to rejigger that baked-in conservative approach to tackling a project. Legal minds like to have all the right answers going in, and that is something we completely flip on its head in our class."

Training would-be lawyers not to be precise, detail-oriented or risk averse can pose its own problems — after all, these are skills that law students will need in other classes, if not in their future careers — and Sales-Griffin says that striking the right balance is key. "We have to teach these students when to activate the different skills they have. When do you activate your precision, and when do you deactivate it and focus on being messy? You have to switch from artist to litigator, and that can be done, but it’s a matter of good decision-making in different scenarios," he says. "When you are building software, for example, it’s okay to ship code that’s not completely bug-free because you have to get something out there. However, when you are making your operating agreement and you’re looking at your cap table and you’re determining who has equity and ownership in what, it’s important to get that right — really right — and early. That’s when you activate the precision. In the Innovation Lab, we teach students how to make those judgment calls."

So which law students benefit most from a crash course in innovation? "I’ll take them all," Sales-Griffin says, because even those lawyers who don’t plan to touch tech might be surprised. "There are almost limitless disruptive opportunities to be innovative with a domain expertise as coveted as legal education. If people who are being trained formally as lawyers also know how to make systems more efficient and come up with solutions to processes that are antiquated? Wow. How incredible would that be? It makes you all the more dangerous. Sure, you can be a lawyer, but also, when something is frustrating you, you can go home that night and think, you know what? I can make this system better. I can’t imagine how that wouldn’t be valuable."