Drexel law professor creates a virtual venue for getting real-world experience

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Drexel law professor Karl Okamoto (center) with members of the ApprenNet team, Emily Foote (left) and Paul Tzen. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/Staff)

There are no business suits in law professor Karl Okamoto's office.

With a single bright-green wall, communal work table for five, and occasional YouTube-video breaks, his room on the fourth floor of the Earle Mack School of Law on the Drexel University campus feels more like a business start-up. But then again, Okamoto is the founder of ApprenNet, an independent, two-year-old company that provides apprenticeship-like job experiences online.

"We all know the best way to learn lots of things is to do them yourself," said Okamoto, 50, a Columbia University law school grad.

Okamoto's latest venture is LawMeets. The Web-based program, available free to all online, invites users to act out how they would respond to a posed legal problem. The program offers users a way before graduating to gain the experience they would get handling legal negotiations in an office. So far, hundreds of groups have participated in various scenarios as part of law school curriculum or on their own.

At the end of July, LawMeets received $500,000, the company's third and largest grant from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Okamoto to tweak the program and develop new teaching applications. LawMeets, about a year old, is similar to moot court, but teams compete to offer the best business deal or answer.

Various scenarios are available and can be completed in a day, so users can return to the program. In one scenario, a participant guides a company's board of directors on retaining the chief financial officer after the chief executive's departure. Users film themselves acting out a response and then review their video and other user videos, offering feedback and voting on favorites. An expert also reviews and offers critiques.

LawMeets will hold a massive, one-day online course in November that is also open to all and meant to prepare teams interested in attending a February LawMeets competition among 72 student teams from law schools across the United States.

The ApprenNet venture, comprising Okamoto, vice president of technology Paul Tzen, and vice president of curriculum Emily Foote, a former student of Okamoto's, hopes to expand the Meets program into other professional fields and to hire two additional employees to help with online-program development.

ApprenNet recently added a new program, K12Meets, for teachers, which simulates classroom instruction, and developed a specialized employee-training program for a local restaurant. Both follow the same formula - a user hears a situation and then offers a response - but are tweaked for the specific field, like asking how a hostess would respond to a loyal customer who cannot book a table reservation at the desired time.

In total, since 2010, the science foundation has awarded Okamoto's projects $680,000. It is rare for lawyers to receive grants from the NSF, Okamoto said, because the legal field typically does not get involved in technology pursuits.

Around Okamoto's Drexel law school office, colleagues recognize him as a rare sort of legal mind. His resumé includes serving on the board of directors of the restaurant chain Cosi, helping his brother start an online book company, and managing a hedge fund.

"He's not what I expected a lawyer to be like," Tzen said. "I've never seen Karl in a suit."

Okamoto said he owns six or seven suits, but acknowledged he probably has the same number of Hawaiian shirts.

Glenn Larsen, science foundation program director in charge of the grant, said that lawyers often dabble in entrepreneurship, but that Okamoto's project was unique. Part of the program involves bringing in practicing lawyers to share their experiences, Larsen said, and the foundation is eager to see what Okamoto's program will do to make an experienced lawyer want to participate.

When Okamoto began thinking about how law school had changed since he graduated from Columbia in 1985, he said, it inspired him to help new lawyers. Today, young lawyers face not only the pressure of leaving school not always adequately prepared to practice, but also the fight over limited available jobs and the struggle with student debt.

"You actually have to be valuable to your clients and your employers the day you show up," Okamoto said, "or you're not getting a job, or you're not going to get paid very well."

More and more law firms want to hire "fully formed" lawyers fresh out of law school. But not all students have real-world experience, said Brian Quinn, an assistant professor of law at Boston College.

"In law schools right now, there's a lot of discussion about how we can teach and how to prepare students as lawyers," said Quinn, who uses LawMeets as part of his curriculum, "and one big knock on law schools is that it's too far removed from practice."

LawMeets creates an opportunity for students to get a practice-like experience in Quinn's classroom, which may have as many as 95 students. For his use of LawMeets, his students nominated him for the college's Teaching With New Media Award, which he received in May.

Okamoto said the ApprenNet team was already seeing the benefits of the program and thinking of ways to expand, like hosting employment profiles so participants can share their videos with prospective law firms.

LawMeets advisory board member Randy Barr, a third-year student at the University of Virginia Law School, calls LawMeets the "most useful experience I have" and credits the program for a job offer from the Philadelphia firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Eamon Gallagher, 30, a third-year Drexel law student concentrating in business and entrepreneurship who is a member of the LawMeets student advisory board, used LawMeets about 15 times. He said the program helped him understand what happened during business negotiations behind closed doors.

"The more experience you can say you have," he said, "the better off you are."


Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-2703 or dmcbride@philly.com.