Cat Moon: Legal Innovation for Next Generation Lawyers

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Caitlin "Cat" Moon is the Director of Innovation Design for the Program in Law and Innovation (PoLI) at Vanderbilt Law School.

“I’m optimistic,” says Caitlin “Cat” Moon, a Vanderbilt Law professor and Director of Innovation Design for the Program in Law and Innovation (PoLI). This quote perfectly sums up her general disposition, but more specifically reflects her outlook on the ability of the legal profession, and its educational institutions, to meet the many challenges and opportunities it faces.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Moon throughout the ABA TECHSHOW last week and at her Design Thinking Workshop at the Women of Legal Tech Summit.

It’s safe to say she is familiar with the traditional practice of law. She is a fifth-generation attorney hailing from Kentucky. Her father started off as a criminal defense attorney and then moved into the prosecutor’s office, ending his career as the elected county attorney. As we talked about this legacy, I started seeing a mental picture of Atticus Finch.

Moon has spent most of her career around Nashville and much of it closely involved with Vanderbilt University. She attended the school for both her undergraduate and law degrees, receiving a degree in Corporate Communications between stints at Vanderbilt.

Frankly, she did not enjoy law school, but she is quick to emphasize this doesn’t have anything to do with Vanderbilt in particular—she took issue with the broader framework of legal education in America.

Moon believes that law school curriculum is designed for “early twentieth century lawyers,” which leaves many needs in the market for legal services are going unmet. She invokes the statistic that motivates many of us in the legaltech community: 80% of people that need legal services don’t get them.

After graduating law school, Moon went to work for a local law firm first in litigation then moving into a transactional practice serving early-stage, high-growth companies. “We call them startups now,” she says.

Her experience with rapidly growing companies and their unique needs led her to form her first “startup law firm” with two other women in 2006—Harpeth Law Group—ultimately growing to five partners. Each partner served a different niche and Moon’s services were tailored to startup companies. Her practice was early to the game on the flat-fee revenue model—almost all her clients paid this way. She likened their fee-arrangements to subscription models.

In 2010, Moon realized her side of the practice had evolved into an extremely virtual affair and she spun off into a “very solo, very virtual” practice to continue serving her startup clients.

Rather than charging fees for services, the firm served a general “trusted advisor” role. They performed the traditional transaction work that startups need, which included reviewing contracts, leases, and general HR functions. But their clients also appreciated Moon and her partners’ ability to effectively draw on an extensive network of legal experts when unique issues arose.

After working with these high-growth companies for more than ten years, Moon decided to return, yet again, to Vanderbilt’s campus, this time as a professor. Through her friend Larry Bridgesmith (previously profiled on the LawZam blog), she was introduced to Vanderbilt Law’s Dean Chris Guthrie and began teaching one class.

Moon heaps praise on Dean Guthrie for his strong backing of innovation in the law school curriculum. She didn’t start by teaching some dreaded first-year torts class, but instead created her own course—Legal Problem Solving. The course was designed in response to the ABA’s finding in a 2016 report that “traditional law practice business model constrains innovations that would provide greater access to, and enhance the delivery of, legal services.”

In this course, she begins by setting the stage for students through historical analysis of the legal services industry to understand the making of today’s market structure. The class then shifts to examine the mechanisms by which other professions have innovated and developed more client-centric models. With all the top-down doctrinal courses in law school, it is a refreshing exercise to question why things are the way they are and look at opportunities for change.

The success of Legal Problem Solving spawned other additions to program in Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt. She now teaches two more courses, Law as a Business and Blockchains and Smart Contracts.

Recently, Moon is responsible for launching the PoLI Institute, an extension of Vanderbilt’s Law and Innovation program for working professionals. She has taken the innovative curriculum offered to students and has repackaged it for a range of professionals—anyone in the legal world with job functions tangential to the legal world can benefit from her programming.

She is bringing the PoLI Institute to any professional (no law degree required) through Legal Operations 2.0, a jam-packed weekend of innovation April 6-7, 2019 at Vanderbilt’s Wond’ry—itself a center of multi-disciplinary innovation and entrepreneurship on campus at Vanderbilt. The goal of the exercises is to workshop the creation of business-centric legal departments through an immersive understanding of client workflows and needs.

Cat Moon is truly an example of the modern lawyer—rooted in generations of tradition but pushing forward to make the changes that will further our profession and maintain its relevancy for generations to come. Her career is worth following and her prolific public speaking engagements are fantastic opportunities to challenge your thinking and find inspiration to tackle problems long-entrenched in our legal market. She is optimistic, and she has the power to make her audience optimistic as well. I look forward to hearing more from her throughout my career.

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