Is there any way, within a functioning, for-profit, self-sustaining market-driven economy, to square this circle of mismatched supply and demand?

Introducing OnRamp’s “bridge to practice” program, a/k/a “ApprenticeRamp.” Paul Lippe, CEO of OnRamp Systems (and, disclosure, a long-time friend) wrote about it in a recent piece for the ABA.

I won’t here rehearse what Paul said in that article, but the way I think of the program integrates several components to create a new type of bridge (or, forgive me, “ramp”) between 3L graduation and the beginnings of mastery of what it means to practice as a 21st Century lawyer:

  • Fundamental, core reliance on a foundation of processes, technology, and systems to undergird the actual work;
  • A new approach to large scale, highly complex projects (which lawyers have traditionally been shockingly poor at handling), while working collaboratively;
  • Rapid, powerful, systematized, and continuous feedback on performance for the new lawyers;
  • While, all at once, delivering tangible market value to clients.

The initiative started with a growing list of 12 participating law schools — Boston College, Colorado, Denver, Emory, Georgetown, Hastings, McGeorge, Northeastern, Northwestern, Ohio State, USC, and Vanderbilt — who nominate recent grads for the program, and a global bank (which must remain anonymous, although they have acted as “co-designers” of the ApprenticeRamp program and protocols) which needs an extremely large-sale contract review process undertaken for Dodd-Frank compliance. At any given time, there are now about 60 apprentices in the program, growing to 150 by this summer and probably 300 by year-end, and there is no requirement that one “graduate” by a date certain and leave the program. At least at this early stage, as long as one can and wants to continue to contribute to building the program, and assume more senior roles (lead the next project for a customer, for instance), people can stay.

Part of the core genius of this program, from my perspective, is how it addresses an unserved or certainly underserved hole in the market: Projects such as this “contract genome mapping” (Paul’s phrase) require a mix of technology and legal expertise that lies far outside any realistic expectation of what an in-house law department could be expected to tackle, but also a project that it would be risibly prohibitive to ask a law firm to address.

I recently had a chance to talk with Randy Nickel, CIO of OnRamp, and gained some insight into how ApprenticeRamp actually works. Some highlights:

  • The core legal work is documenting a large number of characteristics, terms, conditions, and operative clauses of an enormous number of contracts. The obvious technology (well, obvious to somebody like Randy with an extensive Valley IT background) is a full relational database built on MySQL (an open source implementation of “Structured Query Language”) that integrates document information with metadata.
  • Because the work is done online, security is paramount. According to Randy, OnRamp has deployed a very sophisticated (and, I gather, not cheap) software tool to relentlessly probe for holes in the system; he said it can generate reports the size of an old-fashioned telephone book. (Target stores, take heed.) As Randy says, with the wry voice of experience, “the reality is that most systems are vulnerable somewhere, so the question is whether you know where the vulnerability is.”
  • Randy also had some interesting observation about the 20-somethings working in the ApprenticeRamp program. To paraphrase, “they’re more tech-savvy than the typical user we’re familiar with; some of these differences are generational, such as a more collaborative workstyle, but not all. They’re not shy, not ‘leave me alone so I can focus on what I’m doing.’”
  • Collaboration and feedback are at the core of the system; “if lawyers have a reputation as know-it-all’s, this group is learn-it-all’s.”
  • Users can see the “quality assurance” results after their work is done; and if a response is deemed “wrong,” they can even challenge it, which double-checks the QA at the same time. Going to a specific Yes/No answer and hovering over it displays a full discussion of why the question was answered the way it was; drilling down further takes you to the actual page and clause in the contract that gave rise to that answer.
  • Because so much data is captured, the system can begin to seek patterns of “bad” contracts, looking for clusters that correlate with a particular geography, time-frame, or manager at the financial institution — and display results using visualization tools.

Daniel Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern Law, has said about it:

The productivity challenge in legal services provision, particularly in the space created by major technological and global change of the past three (or so) decades, is well known and has been for quite a while. Yet, we have become stuck in our efforts to respond to these changes and we are just beginning the essential project of developing truly original ideas for improving lawyer competence and, moreover, giving young lawyers the tools they need to adapt to this dynamic world.

Programs like OnRamp’s are a promising pathway to becoming “unstuck.”

Similarly, Boston University Law School Dean Maureen O’Rourke told me:

It will take some time to figure out whether this is the technology that will help advance 3L’s into practice, but it is already helping.

I also had a chance to talk to three of the “Rampers” (apprentices): Shanique Nikel of Northwestern, Zach Jones of Harvard, and Stephanie Wong of Hastings.