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Law Schools & Academics

Forum: Designing the future of law

Josh Kubicki  Faculty member at the University of Richmond School of Law

Josh Kubicki  Faculty member at the University of Richmond School of Law

Baker Donelson and Richmond School of Law partner on inaugural legal business design challenge

They gathered together – 11 law students; general counsel and legal operations leaders from Red Robin, Microsoft and UnitedHealthcare; a law firm’s CEO and chairman along with its COO and Chief Client Solutions Group Officer; six professionals from the client solutions group; and a handful of curious partners.


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This was not an academic exercise; it was a real effort by law firm Baker Donelson and others to find emerging competitive advantages while bringing a new twist to legal education.

The program, conducted through the University of Richmond School of Law, was the outcome of learning and applying the discipline of business design coupled with deep collaboration among law students, business leaders and professionals, and lawyers over a 12-week period. As designed, the program yielded preliminarily tested strategies for three new practices that Baker Donelson’s leadership evaluated for further investment. It also fast-tracked and fortified the strategy creation process, cut through the noise of innovation and hit directly at what matters most in generating new ideas – responding to client pressure and changing markets. Further, the program generated evidence, created an action plan and provided clarity on decision criteria.

The Legal Innovation and Entrepreneurship program was launched in the latter half of 2020. The mission of the program is to prepare future lawyers to be legal business leaders, teaching students innovation and entrepreneurship through business design – a human-centered business creation and management methodology.

A key pillar of the program is the Legal Business Design Challenge, a unique undertaking in which law students put design and business theories into practice in a collaborative environment supported by their professor and an “innovator-in-residence” (IIR). IIRs are experts from the fields of law, business and design.


“We are excited to partner with Richmond School of Law in the Legal Business Design Challenge. In our continuing IIR role, we also look forward to helping Richmond School of Law refine the program and to identify opportunities to expand its reach. For example, one of the goals of our continued participation as an IIR is to help Richmond School of Law identify opportunities to attract diverse students to the program and position them for greater success in practice.”

–  Tim Lupinacci  |  Chairman and CEO, Baker Donelson


The IIR team’s role is crucial to the program, as it helps students gain context of the team members’ business model, performance, practice areas and culture. Select members of the IIR team actively participate in the law school class by running the challenge – attending weekly lessons and working sessions with the professor and students. The IIR and program director work together throughout the year to share knowledge, test ideas and generate new pathways for students and the organization to work together, even after law school.

Baker Donelson was the inaugural IIR, and the firm seized this opportunity to strengthen and extend its long-standing commitment to innovation while building on its own business capabilities. This was not an exercise in vanity as the firm and its people were willingly challenged to examine their firm through a rigorous business lens – exposing both weaknesses and strengths. Tim Lupinacci, Chairman and CEO of Baker Donelson, saw clear benefits from participating in the challenges, such as velocity (moving with a clear purpose and action plan); evidence gathering (creating quantitative and qualitative insight); and clarity (generating proof of concepts rather than incomplete ideas).

Impetus for this unique structure arose from today’s changing legal market. To differentiate and compete, law firm managing partners are beginning to recognize the need for new approaches and methods, without wasting time, money or political capital. These legal leaders better understand the need for a businesslike approach that is matched with proven entrepreneurial techniques.

Output from the business design challenge

In the program, the IIR organization benefits by being exposed to new proofs of concepts that they in turn may decide to pursue in some way in order to generate competitive advantage or organizational value. The teams are required to consider and evaluate their challenge by:

      • applying qualitative and quantitative measurements
      • creating insights through substantive and conceptual analysis
      • demonstrating that their solution is valid, feasible and desirable for the client organization

“Our participation in this program illuminated a gap in our innovation strategy.  Concepts such as practice venturing, opportunity mapping, market sizing, testing for viability and probability of success, and developing a service blueprint were new concepts for our team.  The on-the-job training in the use of these tools with real-life Baker Donelson opportunities has now positioned our team to be much more effective at vetting and testing ideas before we invest significant resources in implementation.”

– David Rueff  |  Chief Client Solutions Officer, Baker Donelson


Through this process, the IIR begins to map its own innovation playbook as their team gets exposed to key business design tools and processes. For example, the Baker Donelson team, in conjunction with the students, learned, experimented and applied fundamental business design techniques such as:

      • determining the total addressable market for a new legal service to ensure it is worth going after
      • evaluating operational capacity within the law firm to learn how it executes its business currently in order to size and plan for changed management realities
      • identifying resource condition and accessibility to determine what resources will be needed, the law firm’s resource capabilities and how best to align to the needs of the new service
      • conducting user research and needs assessment to calibrate partner assumptions with actual client experiences
      • mapping the firm’s workflow blueprint and user experience in delivering the new service in order to stress-test it

Looking ahead

While the Legal Business Design Challenge happens within the space of one semester, the IIR relationship continues for a full year. Baker Donelson has continued to explore the strategic options the students have provided and may pilot some projects in the near term. Outside of this, Baker Donelson and Richmond Law’s Legal Innovation and Entrepreneurship program are actively collaborating to generate further value opportunities for Richmond law school students and the firm. Currently, work has begun to:

      1. Create a business design playbook for Baker Donelson to incorporate the work and tools used in the challenge and provide source material to draw from in the firm’s effort to educate, train and catalyze further innovation efforts.
      2. Explore how this program can enable deeper diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts both by attracting students interested in this arena as well as use the program to generate initiatives related to measurable and meaningful DEI developments.
      3. Produce an online event or webinar for Baker Donelson’s firm and clients that showcases its work on the challenge and shares insights into the process and outcomes.
      4. Develop a recruiting pipeline from the law school to the firm that attracts high-performing law students who are seeking legal roles where having a business and innovation capability is appreciated and sought after.

Though the Legal Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at Richmond Law is still in its first year, there is a serious commitment to continue building on the momentum already created. Also, there is ample additional opportunity for business design to be applied to legal services to improve the client experience, reach new clients and better address emerging legal needs.

This program will continue to be devoted to exploring all sectors within the legal services market – from small law to large law, from personal legal services to commercial, from for-profit companies to nonprofit organizations – because the benefits of business design are not exclusive to any one context.

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