PUBLISHED:September 02, 2010

Breaking the law school mold

Sept. 2, 2010 -- Duke Law launched its Law and Entrepreneurship LLM program with an unusual orientation exercise designed to get set a distinctive -- and decidedly non-law school -- tone for the new program.

During a two-day, mid-August session led by the Innovation Institute -- a professional and personal development organization based in Charlotte, N.C., and started by some of that city’s most prominent business leaders -- students were challenged to explore their own capacity to take risks and be innovative. The goal of the program was to enable the students to better understand the discipline and processes that underlie creativity and to develop the tools needed to better utilize the creative process in their future professional lives as entrepreneurial lawyers.

“Lawyers who work with entrepreneurs need a unique combination of skills,” said Professor James Cox, faculty director of the Law and Entrepreneurship LLM (LLMLE) program. “Not only do they need to be highly competent legal practitioners, they need to be savvy business people and effective problem solvers who are skilled at helping to transform ideas into marketable opportunities. Finding the courage to take risks and developing the capacity for creative thinking are essential.”

The Innovation Institute program, led by a team of facilitators that included a professional educator, a banker, and two artists, incorporated art-making, personality testing, and guided self-reflection to help the LLMLE students develop new insight into their own creative processes as well as into the mindsets of the entrepreneurs and innovators that they will one day advise.

“I’ve never been an artsy or creative type. I love numbers, stuff you can make sense of, stuff you can define, but this sparked something in me,” said LLMLE student Padowithz Alce. “It helped me see the essence of what it takes to be creative and innovative. I will keep it in mind through the rest of this year -- and well into my practice.”

LLMLE student Carrie Cottingham saw the use of artistic exercises in the orientation program as a chance for students to think critically about their more natural tendencies toward avoiding risk. “We were asked to create something without first making a plan. It would be an understatement to say, as lawyers, we were not comfortable to just dive in without knowing all the facts, and possible risks, and outcomes. But, as with art, a startup requires vision, drive, and the creative agility to think beyond the obvious solutions to meet new challenges.

“Seeing the risks and challenges down the road may be a good skill when advising a client, but if that is all we see then we’re missing the big picture,” she added. “The orientation program forced me to focus on the process towards success, instead of only the fear of failure.”

“One of the things we’re trying to do here is reimagine what it means to be a lawyer,” said Professor Andrew Foster, acting director of the LLMLE program. “We want students to learn to create possibility -- for clients, for their firms, for themselves. We are shifting the dynamic from issue-spotting to problem-solving.”

The session also helped build a collaborative foundation for the class, which Foster described as “the most important class we’ll have, because you will help shape this program into what it can be. You are not 1Ls; you are lawyers. We are going to offer you all the opportunities we can, but only you can take advantage of them.”

The full class of 14 lawyers represents eight states, nine law schools, and two law firms. The group will participate in a variety of courses during the year, including the mandatory Law and Entrepreneurship course and a spring semester practicum placement in an entrepreneurial venture, as well as a number of “beyond-the-classroom” activities, such as an informal yearlong seminar on “The Anatomy of a Deal.” Presented by Kip Frey ’85, chair of the Law and Entrepreneurship LLM program advisory board and CEO of Zenph Sound Innovations in Research Triangle Park, the seminar will give students an insider’s view of one of Zenph’s business deals as it unfolds.

For Alce, the opportunity to meet and work with entrepreneurs, to focus his coursework on advanced business law courses, and to collaborate with classmates from diverse backgrounds is precisely the reason he enrolled in the LLMLE program. During his first week of classes, he also met with teams of students from the medical and engineering schools who are participating in a course at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering through which interdisciplinary teams of students compete to develop viable business models for a new and innovative product.

Alce’s role will be to provide a team with the necessary legal perspective on starting a business -- and more. “I want to be eye-deep in business, in the center of it all,” he said. “That’s the promise I see in this program. That’s what I’m getting here. You can’t teach innovation on a PowerPoint. You have to experience it.”

Cottingham sees the LLMLE program as a natural response to the changing demands of the marketplace.

“There are so few attorneys with the requisite interdisciplinary skills to oversee the key aspects of a company’s formation and early growth,” she said. “By bringing together these courses under one umbrella, combined with the opportunity of real-world experience, this program addresses a modern business reality. A lawyer with this very unique and specific skill set is a new breed of attorney who meets a real need in today’s new business landscape.”