As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.
This LPS post is by Scott Cowie, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.
One theme has weaved its way through our entire course: our clients are pretty damn important to our success. Whether it’s their needs or wants or our ability to view our work from their perspective, to be relevant and successful in today’s market, one must not only respond to, but anticipate, developments on the client’s end. When it’s their money on the line, our performance will determine whether we leave them in a position to refer us to a friend or write a nasty yelp review.
In The Design of Business, Roger Martin discussed observation of clients as a vital tool to employ in better understanding client needs in crafting effective solutions. He stressed that viewing clients in their environments and truly understanding their perspective on matters is critical to identifying their actual needs and responding in the most appropriate and effective manner. Whether one is going into a corporate field they have little background in or to a public defender’s office, observing and understanding the client will be crucial to providing the best service possible.
Jordan Furlong in Fight the Future lays out how adapting to shifting client standards and needs will determine who falls and rises. He points out that firm retention is tied to ever-changing client criteria, with those able to meet the differing and demanding expectations of clients as those most prepared to offer better solutions. This relates to observing clients - as one better understands an industry or environment in which a client operates, they will be better prepared to adapt and anticipate needs and potential roadblocks. Thinking with the end in mind or preparing for new developments and shifting desires can make our end product better as we won’t be caught off guard - developing a solution with multiple strategies in mind can contribute to a more holistic service, whether these shifts occur or not.
Pre-AP English Language Arts, Dade Middle School 2014-15
When I was 22 years old and fresh out of college, I left the rough and tumble streets of Malibu for South Dallas and Teach for America. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do following college but TFA seemed like a logical step, I mean, I had studied about poverty and systemic racism within the education system - I was definitely ready to help these kids!
Nothing could have prepared me for Dade Middle School. Dallas ISD had decided to tear down two (rival gang) middle schools in Fair Park and house them in one new building. The schools represented feuding factions of the community and that was apparent from day one. Within two years, we saw 4 principals, countless fights, 3 riots (one including so many students that it required Dallas PD spraying an entire floor of the building with pepper spray), many teachers walking out, and an environment as unstable as you can imagine. For my students, this atmosphere contributed to instability they saw in their community and in some, their own homes. School was not a place of refuge or possibility, but a daily reminder of the strife that was out of their control yet was determining their fate. But I had read books! I knew how to handle this. I didn’t.
When I met my students, both the first and second year, they were often far below state and national standards, with reading levels ranging from on-grade to 2nd grade. The state exam passing rate, which for my 8th graders largely determined whether or not they went to high school, was a defeating 38%. My students were screwed, I thought as much. I had spent 5 weeks in Houston training with TFA (and 4 years at Pepperdine stalking Harry Styles at NoBu more than creating solutions to the education gap), how the hell was I going to fix this?
The most important thing I realized was that I wasn’t, we were. It started much as our capstone did - I identified my stakeholders and the networks my students and I could leverage to bring some stability to our class and accountability to our work. It’s important to break down the stakeholders in terms of who was helpful and who was not, as I believe in the legal community it’s important to breakdown what stakeholders should actually direct our work, while keeping in mind everyone affected. I broke it down as such:
The way I saw it, my central stakeholders had an actual stake in what we did in class and a tangible connection to our success - meanwhile the periphery largely hung on our results and faced little personal risk at what happened in my classroom. The periphery wanted our success because it made them look good; my central stakeholders wanted our success because it meant my kids and South Dallas were flipping the script on what children in these circumstances can do in this country
It was through gaining deep insight into my students and their community that I became the teacher and leader they needed - attending school sporting events (even those of my first year students when in high school - developing the community of our client base matters), making home visits and maintaining a network of accountable communication, creating action plans for students, observing my students in other classes during my off-period, and establishing a teaching style around them, not my idea of what a teacher was, not only helped me design better lessons, it started a community in my room and deepened the connection my students had to my class. They saw my effort to invest in them and reciprocated by investing in the material - I believe as attorneys, showing the client we are invested in their business and life outside the transaction can lead to a relationship which leads to better results and stronger retention and trust in future transactions.
While the school spiraled in chaos in many other classrooms, we were determined in 323. We developed period-specific goals, truisms, rules, and ways of learning - no period was the same, as it shouldn’t be. When I failed the first few weeks that first year, it was because I thought I could take the same lesson plan to first and seventh period. I wasn’t thinking of my students, I was thinking of how it was more efficient for me. In law, as we’ve seen in different activities, we cannot take cookie-cutter forms and solutions to similar clients just because they come from a particular industry. Just as my students in different periods needed different lesson plans to engage and succeed, our clients need different solutions based on their needs. We must be able to identify why a client isn’t engaging with a strategy or solution in order to re-design and conceptualize the best outcome for them.
I always hated poetry in school so when it came time to begin that unit I used my personal experience disliking it to drive my approach and focused on what my students wanted to - hip hop and R&B. I drew my students in with some of Tupac’s best lyrics, songs and poems. Then we compared them to Langston Hughes. From Rich Homie Quan to William Carlos Williams, my students developed a knowledge of poetic devices because it was relevant and targeted. They connected songs they loved to poems they had never read because they saw a connection; knowing what our clients are genuinely interested in can lead us to connect them to the resources they actually need.
In the end, both my first and second year students accomplished passing rates on the Texas state assessment of 87-92% [these groups performed at similar rates as students in highly acclaimed Highland Park ISD to the north.] Reading levels increased by 2.5-3.5 years and my kids crushed their personal goals as well as district exam passing rates. Around 20% of the students pursued and were subsequently accepted to magnet schools in Dallas. This speaks to human-centered design: it was not that I was a great teacher, it was that connecting my ‘clients’ to the resources they needed enabled them to succeed. Considering that my class was only one part of a larger equation that led to student success, it shows it is critical to develop lines of accountability in the community and with fellow colleagues to ensure clients meet goals. We can facilitate our clients’ success by providing services based around them.
My personal experience is aimed at driving home this point: designing with the client in mind cuts across industries and demographics and goes to the soul of any vocation, whether you’re a teacher in South Dallas or a corporate attorney in New York City. If you don’t identify who you’re pushing toward success, they won’t succeed - at least in the manner in which they need and want. You may be happy with the work, but were they?