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James T. Parsons, Local Contributor
March 27, 2010

"Should Lawyers Be Trained to Solve Problems"

As the staff attorney to a judge and former Texas assistant attorney general I find that too often lawyers don’t approach problems practically. The legal process frequently begins by billing, rather than solving problems. One solution is for lawyers to view their job primarily as one of "problem solving." The consequence of not embracing this focus belies a destructive effect on the legal system as well as our economy.

Many attorneys don’t step back from their clients’ emotional involvement; they may fail to look at cases holistically in search of easy solution. Is it a wonder legal bills are so exorbitant?

A lack of pragmatism in the process guarantees skyrocketing costs for clients. In fact, it is not unusual for advocates to enter the courtroom without talking to the other side.  Yet problem solving must begin with communication, not legal analysis.

During my tenure in the AG’s Office, I routinely witnessed cases where legal fees for the private parties eclipsed the amount of money in dispute.  An example: two attorneys sued their firm for their fees; the amount at issue was $200,000.  After two years of protracted litigation, each side spent $200,000 in fees, finally cutting a deal to split the $200,000.  It is not uncommon for the amount paid in legal fees to exceed the judgment.

Even when parties recover a good “paper judgment,” the unstated truth is that one still must collect — yet again, a time consuming and expensive process not always yielding a favorable outcome.   It was my experience at the AG’s Office that it would be more prudent for parties to set aside their principles regarding what they thought was “right,” recognizing the wisdom of settling early.

Don’t get me wrong.  Many attorneys understand these realities, and they are making an earnest effort to solve their clients’ problems efficiently and effectively.  Unfortunately, too few law schools view problem solving skills as essential.  Law schools favor teaching the ability to brief a legal issue, with emphasis and value placed upon amassing documentation.

Ironically, while law schools tend to provide a more practical education than other academic programs, they too err in the direction of theory. This preoccupation with the intellectual side of law makes it less likely that students--future lawyers--will learn that the price of finding the “right” legal answer might cost more than the problem.

It’s time to ask: Will status quo legal processes be perpetuated or is there a better way to train lawyers?

An educational model that might provide insight is the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) in The University of Texas at Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.  IE’s approach to education is best described as one of problem solving. Through internships, entrepreneurial incubators and action seminars, thousands of UT undergraduate and graduate students (some of whom are aspiring attorneys) learn a unique way to access, integrate and utilize knowledge.

Rather than beginning with specialized academic knowledge, students are empowered to be entrepreneurs--to start with issues. The emphasis is on finding collaborators: departments, the community, students. By acquiring skills in teamwork, communication and leadership, students learn to become innovative problem solvers. IE’s cross-disciplinary approach to learning (its pedagogy) employs mentoring and coaching-- practices which are invaluable to developing effective teamwork and putting to work the vital knowledge obtained from academic departments.

The IE curriculum blends theory and practice, thus enabling students to discover their passions and determine how various fields of study contribute to their career objectives and the ability to address personal and social challenges. Not surprisingly, IE courses are disproportionately populated by first-generation and underrepresented students--those for whom problem solving is the most effective path to learning and for whom using academic knowledge to contribute to their communities is a must.

Law schools can learn from the IE model, perhaps incorporating this curriculum within legal education.  The world’s problems are evolving as quickly now as the technology upon which our society is based. The challenges within the legal community, and those addressed by it, are becoming increasingly intractable; they require attorneys who first and foremost are problem solvers--intellectual entrepreneurs.

If we want to effect a meaningful transformation in the practice of law, replacing the costly and counterproductive emphasis on billing rather than problem solving, new approaches to legal education are essential. Attorneys must become more responsive to their clients and community needs. IE’s problem solving method of learning offers one process to accomplish this.

Parsons is staff attorney for the 200th District Civil Court in Travis County.