Changing the Culture of the American Justice System


Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis is the executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). She believes in the foundations of the American legal system and has dedicated her career, in and out of the courts, to ensuring that the system provides justice for all. She served Colorado’s judiciary for nearly two decades, first as a trial court judge and then as a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. During her time on the bench, Justice Kourlis witnessed a system increasingly under attack from outside forces—one that was often failing to deliver the justice she swore to uphold. So, in January 2006, she resigned from the Supreme Court to do something about it and established IAALS.

Her work at the helm of IAALS is focused on continuous improvement of the American legal system, and a logical off-shoot of her accomplishments on the bench, where she spearheaded significant reforms in the judicial system. Justice Kourlis began her career with the law firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs, and then started a small practice in rural northwest Colorado, where she worked in natural resources, water, public lands, oil and gas, and mineral law. In 1987, she was appointed as a trial court judge with a general jurisdiction docket. She served as water judge and later as chief judge of the district. In 1994, she returned to Denver and worked as an arbitrator and mediator for the Judicial Arbiter Group. She was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court in 1995. Justice Kourlis earned a B.A. in English from Stanford University with distinction and a J.D. from Stanford University Law School. Over the course of her career, Justice Kourlis has received numerous individual honors.


What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently?

This year marks IAALS’ 10th Anniversary, so we are reflecting on our impact to date while staying focused on our upcoming projects. We have four areas of concentration: how judges are selected and evaluated; reforming the civil justice system; reforming the system for separating and divorcing families; and educating tomorrow’s lawyers. Throughout all four areas, IAALS collects empirical data, convenes stakeholders, and develops practical solutions to very real legal problems. We then test those solutions.

At our 10-year mark, it is appropriate for us to look around and assess how IAALS is ‘advancing the American legal system.’ As part of a national movement to make the civil justice system more affordable, effective and accessible, we see progress reflected in federal and state court rules changes and in how judges and courts manage cases. In our advocacy for robust judicial performance evaluation (designed to measure things like demeanor, preparation, intellect, work ethic and collegiality), we can point to states where amended programs are reflective of our recommendations and to other states that have developed programs from scratch. We can take pride in IAALS originating new and less adversarial models for divorcing and separating families that help parents and children; and we can now call ourselves an established leader in the legal education reform movement. So, we are celebrating what we have been able to accomplish.

What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?

Data show that the unmet legal need in our country is profound, and spans into the middle class as well as those of more modest means. IAALS sees it through our Honoring Families Initiative research, which reveals that self-represented litigants in divorce proceedings would prefer not to go it alone, and they are usually not indigent. Taking into account that maybe 80% of divorce cases across the country involve one or more unrepresented litigant, this is a huge and untapped market. Lawyers need to reframe themselves as helpmates and problem solvers, and figure out how to be affordable and available when and where clients need them (by offering online services, with litigant web portals, etc.). If lawyers are willing to reshape their service delivery models, the possibilities are endless.


What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?

IAALS recently released a publication called The Top Ten Legal Culture Shifts Needed to Create the Courts of Tomorrow. It distills the results of interviews that our staff conducted with approximately 30 judges and lawyers across the nation about what culture changes they deem necessary to build a legal system that would make them proud.

I would now like to see those changes take hold. For example, lawyers should go back to their professional roots and remember why they went to law school and what they hoped to achieve. Lawyers should honor justice above winning at all costs; they should dig deep into their cases at an early point in time rather than boilerplating them and letting them evolve. Lawyers should implement tailored and proportional discovery and value the legal systemin both word and deed. And yes, lawyers should realign their billing practices with efficiencies (such as flat-rate billing). That is a lot of change—yet it is all doable, and within the power of each and every lawyer.

What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?

Under our Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Initiative, IAALS is engaged in a project called Foundations for Practice. We surveyed lawyers nationwide, received more than 27,000 responses from 37 states, and asked what competencies, skills and traits a new lawyer needs to succeed. One of the primary take-aways is that the profession now values “soft skills” a great deal. Remember when the medical profession stood up and acknowledged that “bedside manner” mattered? The legal profession is now there, and we know now “clientside manner” matters a great deal. This offers law schools, law firms, in-house departments, and other employers a new opportunity to put their heads together and develop ways to train for those skills—perhaps with the assistance of adjunct professors or law firm volunteers.

In 2015, IAALS published a report called Ahead of the Curve that analyzed the results of 10 years of data on a program at the University Of New Hampshire School Of Law called the Daniel Webster Scholars program. Program students spend their second and third years taking a variety of experiential courses and are evaluated along the way by a team of professors as well as by a bar examiner. If they successfully complete law school, including that series of courses, students can waive into the New Hampshire Bar. IAALS examined the data and determined that the Daniel Webster Scholars were ahead of their peers in a myriad of skills necessary to successfully practice. In short, the program works, and is a terrific example of the bench, the bar, and the academy teaming up to invent a new solution. Putting the great brains of both practicing lawyers and also law professors together to figure out how to prepare new lawyers more effectively is another opportunity ripe for the taking.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is a member of the Editorial Board of Law Practice Today and is a veteran public relations practitioner in San Francisco.

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