Douglas Lusk: A Charismatic & Pioneering Leader Forging New Paths in Legal Technology Education

Top 10 Most Inspiring People in Legal Services, 2022

Douglas Lusk, President/CEO of the National Society for Legal Technology (NSLT), is a quietly charismatic leader who believes in making friends wherever he goes. He never envisioned himself as a pioneer in the field of legal technology when he launched the NSLT, but now that he is acknowledged to be a pioneer, he still sees himself as the fighter for the underdog.

He first launched the NSLT as a student club in 2015, at the start of his second year of law school. Within two years, word had quickly spread to other universities, and his interactive software lessons and task-based training were integrated into their classrooms to replace the outdated technology textbooks previously used.

Once an aspiring law student who lacked the prestige resume often required at top-tier law schools, Doug is now invited to train students at those prestigious institutions to use legal technology. He has quickly risen to become a nationally recognized expert in the field of legal technology education and has been a keynote speaker at numerous bar association meetings and tech conferences across the nation.

His article on “What Is Missing When It Comes to Legal Technology?” was published in USA Today, in March 2018, and by the time he graduated from law school in June 2018, the NSLT was a required classroom curriculum in more than 125 colleges and universities across the United States. By July 2022, it was the preferred curriculum for legal technology classes in over 250 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada, with individual members in 11 countries around the world.

After receiving his Juris Doctorate from the University of Laverne College of Law, Doug accepted his first Adjunct Professor position at Fullerton College. Never one to turn down a great opportunity, he also accepted similar adjunct positions at Mt. San Antonio College, Daemen University, Salt Lake Community College, and UC-Berkeley Extension.

The long road to getting a legal education

Growing up on a farm in the “middle of nowhere” in Utah, Doug had no access to legal education. Having been taken advantage of multiple times in business as a naïve young man, he was interested in learning more about the law to protect himself and become a better businessman.

Doug started his first company right out of high school while working a full-time job, running his company full-time, and going to school part time. Because he was working 80 hours a week while attending college, it did not result in stellar grades, so in his view a law degree seemed out of reach and not feasible.

It took Doug 10 years to complete his bachelor’s degree, working full-time to pay his college tuition.  In his early 20s he took a sales position with Sherwin-Williams, in Utah. He continued with the company for 10 years, relocated to Southern California, and eventually rose to a managerial position with a staff of six employees.  He even appeared in several home “makeover” television shows representing Sherwin-Williams, and he also appeared in a national television commercial for the company. He considered himself a “company man.”

After the housing market crashed and paint sales declined, Doug was eventually laid off like miliions of Americans.  This presented an opportunity for Doug to reinvent himself.  His future husband, an attorney, suggested that he go back to school and pursue legal studies, which never seemed possible when he was younger and living in Utah.  Doug then enrolled in UCLA’s prestigious paralegal certificate program and graduated with top grades. Before long, he was working at a boutique law firm in the Los Angeles suburbs.

Becoming a pioneer in legal technology education

At his new paralegal job, Doug quickly realized that the paralegals did all the work while the attorneys received the bulk of the pay. So he decided to enroll in law school, where he soon learned there was no legal software training, either at the school or at his employer’s law firm. To his surprise, he discovered this was common across the industry.  This realization formed the seed that would eventually sprout and blossom into the NSLT.

Doug came along and started teaching software through simulations.  A novel concept at the time, as most colleges and universities were using printed textbooks and study guides to teach legal technology.  Doug’s approach was novel at the time because he built lessons and taught software programs through task-based simulations, so students felt like they were getting hands-on experience. Through the NSLT’s portal, students accessed the tutorials without having to download each software title. This was far superior to the prior method of teaching from dull textbooks that quickly became outdated because software titles were constrantly being upgraded. Schools quickly caught on.

Once he started showing his interactive training materials to schools they inevitably threw out their textbooks and relied on Doug’s training program in lieu of a textbook.  In his last year of law school, Doug was flying all over the nation to lecture at conferences and bar associations and meetings. He would sometimes have to turn down speaking opportunities because he had to attend class and could not afford any more absences.

Doug was shocked and surprised at how much it grew and was floored the day he got the call from Harvard Law School. “They thought I was this big professor and realizing I was just in my second year of law school floored them,” he says.  As a law student, Doug had taken a largely ignored subject and created excellent training materials for paralegal programs and law schools too.

“What law student thinks, ‘Hey, I’m going to write curriculum and Harvard’s going to use me as a textbook’?” exclaims Doug. “I’m the law student who changed the face of legal technology education while nobody was watching.”

After graduation, Doug had a teaching offer two months later. He runs his company and teaches on the side. “I really enjoy that aspect of it. I teach paralegal students at community colleges because that’s who I relate to the most — because they’re usually married with kids, working their way through school, and taking classes on the side,” he says.

Always the fighter for the underdog

From the outset of the NSLT, Doug had a vision of bringing user-friedly legal technology education to the masses, and this included students across a broad swath of socioecomonic and geographical diversity. This would include students at well-known institutions and those at local community colleges. Although he interacts with prestigious law firms and universities on a daily basis, Doug also understands the struggle of those who work while going to school in the evenings  because he was one of them. It took him a decade to earn his undergraduate degree because he worked full-time.

The beauty of the NSLT program is that students can access it at any time, from wherever they are. They can put their kids to sleep and then log on to the NSLT’s website to complete their homework. They can go at their own pace and receive hand-on instruction how to use legal software.

“With the NSLT program, You don’t need a trainer. You can teach yourself the material at your own pace, and we can help you,” Doug says.

He wants students of all types and at all kinds of institutions to become more marketable, and one to do that is to earn an NSLT Certificate in Legal Technology. That involves about 55 hours of hands-on instruction in at least 13 software titles.

The NSLT currently offers 25 titles to pick from, but particular titles are usually selected by the course instructor as part of the syllabus.

Doug cares so much about his students that even though the NSLT has grown considerably, he still oversees every tech support inquiry himself because he cares about them being able to get back to their homework as soon as possible. His phone often rings in the evenings with students calling him because of a tech issue. He patiently helps each one get back on track.

“I want them to have a good experience with it; to make sure I’m resolving all of their problems personally. My employees keep trying to convince me to let that part go, but some passions you just can’t let go of. That’s just part of who I am,” says Doug.

Doug proudly points out that his product is affordable and easily accessed by students and legal professionals wherever they may live, even in underserved urban communities, in rural enclaves, or in geographically remote areas. Students in those areas have traditionally lacked the resources available to many others, and with the NSLT, Doug hopes to level the playing field.

“I’ve always been the fighter for the underdog. I came from nothing. I relate to the people who have nothing. So it’s where I keep my company focused on,” says Doug. “I built the company to resolve the issues that I faced. I couldn’t afford things. So I care about my product being affordable to students.”

Doing what’s right for the customer

The core values of Doug’s company are inspired by his real life experiences. His first product launched at $120, almost half the price of the competitor’s textbook, and he offered 15 software titles instead of the five found in a typical textbook. He believes in giving students the tools they need to make a career, and he sells a better product at a better price. The current product teaches 25 software programs and sells for only $160.

“We live by the mantra of always do the right thing, do what’s right for the customer. Don’t care about whether it’s the right choice to make business-wise. We do what’s right for the person we’re trying to help,” Doug explains.

Success came by surprise and with plenty of risk. The first year in business, he did $200 in sales; the next year, $300.  Doug realized that while the idea was right, the delivery was wrong.  He then retooled his approach and developed his task-based tutorials. That is when schools began to take notice and integrate the NSLT into their curriculums, and his sales skyrocketed.

“I was building what I wanted, not what my customers needed. I had to let my ego go and start listening to my customers; to stop and listen to the market, see what they wanted, and build from there,” he says.

Part of why the product works so well and makes it successful is because Doug uses it himself. When it is not working for him as a professor, he builds something that works the way he needs it to. He also developed a program for professionals and published a textbook to supplement the online tutorials.

“I’ve hit the forefront of my field. It isn’t about building something that’s good enough to sell. I want it to be the best. I want a high-quality product, so we take the hits financially and perfect it first, and then put it out,” he states.

Doug notes that, while perfectionism is the doom of entrepreneurs, in the end it’s what makes his company so respected. “The good thing is it’s a digital product, so it’s always developing and we’re always perfecting as it goes. There are a lot of things we can fix on the fly,” he observes.

From being ignored to ruling the industry

Having worked a lot of different jobs to pay the bills, Doug has always been very scrappy and resilient, with a mindset that if you work hard enough, you can get anything done. In the legal technology space, not only does he have to keep up with competitors, but with changes in technology it sometimes can be harder.

He is also good friends with the competition, and they keep tabs on each other, discuss challenges, and what they’re doing to overcome them. “Helping each other, and being very open, we all improve,” he says.

Doug observes that the key to a successful career is to keep educating yourself because knowledge is power. He reads a lot and is always trying to find ways to align his products with what students are doing. NSLT is disrupting traditional ways of teaching legal technology, which was why he practically changed the industry overnight while no one was looking.

Doug is constantly looking to push the envelope, so he is always way ahead of his competitors. “I’m not really worried about competition. What I constantly have to watch for is changing technology. Is what we’re teaching still good and valid? What new stuff do I need to be teaching them?” he observes.

He notes that blockchain technology and artificial intelligence are changing the legal industry. So he constantly has to watch where they are going and be prepared for the next shift in the industry.

“That’s what helps me stay at the front. I’m watching the industry change and reacting to it. I’m right there at the front of the pack, and that’s always challenging, because the legal industry can bevery slow to adapt to changes in technology,” Doug points out.

How the pandemic forced the legal industry to adapt

Doug observes that the pandemic was actually phenomenal because it forced the legal industry to adapt, to embrace technology, and propelled it 20 years into the future.

“We were used to old school ways – paper, sending letters, faxes, going to court in person. The pandemic changed all that. Now, you can do court trials and have hearings by Zoom, and never step foot in the courthouse anymore,” he notes.

Doug remarks that while there is still a long way to go, the pandemic really pushed the legal industry forward and changed education. Prior to that, the American Bar Association (ABA), which dictates legal education, would not budge their rules, even when students were spread out physically in locations like Hawaii.

The pandemic made the ABA rethink their rules and realize that it was possible to get a good quality education, to communicate and learn through video conferencing, without being in the same room physically. It helped the legal industry realize their antiquated rules were not effective anymore.

Doug observes that learning technology in groups can intimidate students, as they compare themselves to their peers. His goal is to help them learn on their own, not as a group, so that their confidence increases.

He points out that, while some topics are learned better in groups, technology is learned better in isolation, becausestudents they stop worrying about where they should be and start focusing on where they are.

A focus on inspiring employees and helping them grow

Doug sees his employees’ personal growth as his greatest achievement. “I’m not a very strict boss. I believe in leading by inspiration, and inspiring my students and employees to be better. I want to see my employees grow,” he states.

Because workers rarely stay in a job for 30 years anymore, he wants his employees to have a good future as well. “It’s not just being successful now; it’s setting them up for where they’re going to go next; allowing them to be the best they can be, because you get so much personal satisfaction from growing and developing yourself. If I can give my employees that satisfaction, that’s a great benefit of working at NSLT,” he says.

Doug sees his job as being the “head fire chief,” putting out all the fires. He deals with the big problems and the big picture; dreaming about possibilities as head dreamer and head trainer for his employees.

“They’re only going to be good if I invest time in them, help them, and give them the resources they need to grow,” he says. That means helping them grow in their roles and positioning, letting go of tasks that he wants to do, and allowing them to do it instead because they need the growth.

“When you’re at the top, it’s tempting to take all of the fun, easy jobs. You have to let go and see which employees need this experience more, and where it’s going to help them grow. I’m putting the right person in the place where they can grow the most and enjoy their job; and their growth helps me, so it’s a win-win situation,” he states.

Flipping the hierarchy pyramid on its head

Doug points out that, as the boss, he has all the rewards, the highest pay, all the benefits. The way he sees it, the one with the best pay should get the least desirable work. So he takes on the tasks that nobody really wants to do. It’s a very different mentality, because he took the hierarchy pyramid and flipped it on its head, so his job is to support everybody in the company below him.

“I’ve always hated that type of hierarchy where the CEO walks in and he’s too good to go fetch his own coffee. If I take care of them, I know they’re going to take care of me. If I’m not supporting them, how do I expect them to get their job done? No one should be working harder than I do. I should be the first in, and the last out,” he states.

Doug works the most hours every week, and even on holidays, he’s in the office and his employees are off enjoying the holiday. He works Christmas so they don’t have to, and he answers the phones on the weekend, so they can enjoy quality time with their kids.

“If anyone in the company is going to be sacrificing and giving up, it’s going to be me,” he says. “The only time I’m going to have an employee work on holidays is if I absolutely cannot handle it by myself.”

Doug is building an environment where his employees want to work hard and succeed. “We work hard and play hard. Once a year, I take all my employees on a cruise ship for a week. “I care about them. I care what they’re doing, and make sure they’re well taken care of,” he remarks.

Doug’s extreme commitment to work doesn’t allow much work-life balance, but he believes that if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. Achieving balance is about finding a job that’s a passion, so it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

“Now I just get paid to play. I see work as me playing and dreaming and having fun; thinking of what I can do next, what I can build next. When work becomes play, you have balance,” Doug states.

A superpower for helping people realize their potential

One of Doug’s superpowers is being able to see the potential in his employees and allowing them the space to develop it. He notes that people perform to the level that you allow them to perform to, not to your expectations.

“I want to believe in my employees, see their potential, and show them that even though they don’t believe in their potential at the moment, I do. That’s been game-changing for my team, the way they viewed themselves,” he says.

In more than 20 years as a manager and business owner, Doug has witnessed many life-changing experiences for his employees. He recalls helping a former stay-at-home mom see that she had 10 years of relevant experience just from learning how to balance multiple things as a wife and mother; and that it was worth every penny to see how much more she valued herself and her abilities, simply because he believed in her.

Doug doesn’t tell his employees how to do their job. He gives them their responsibilities and says, “This is yours. You dream what you want to do with it and how you want to get it. I want you to feel like you own this, and I’m going to pay you like you own it.” His approach shocks them, because they’ve never had the freedom to develop their job any way they want to.

Doug recalls a time when he was working at a grocery store and was the house problem-solver. Whenever an employee was on the verge of getting fired, they would be assigned to his crew. So he learned how to spot their potential and honed that skill.

He admits he worries more about his employees than his company. “My employees succeeding as the company succeeds is very important to me. What’s the point in me succeeding, if I don’t get to bring them with me?” asks Doug.

He states that having an employee who doesn’t have to worry what’s in her bank account when she goes to buy groceries is worth more to him than driving a Tesla. Doug admits that he has a different mentality as a leader, but it’s the type of company he wants to build, and it has taken him to the top ranks in his field.

“My employees get it. My clients are friends. I believe in selling by relationship, not by pressure. We don’t do sales, we make friends, and the job is to just be a friend,” says Doug.

He’s the person you would turn to with questions, and know they were going to guide you to the right answer. Doug doesn’t even have written contracts with his schools because he always wants them to have the ability to walk away and not ever feel like a hostage.

“If I ever let you down, I want you to be free to find somewhere that’s better,” Doug states. “I’ve never had a customer leave. Once they start with me, they stay with me. I always have to provide better service than my competition does and make sure my product is top-notch. That’s a breath of fresh air for my customers.”

Quietly changing the industry and people’s lives

Doug’s plans for the future are to continue finding solutions to the problems his customers face and help them by developing new products. He admits that they have new products coming, some which will be industry-changing.

“I dream big and never stop to worry about getting credit. I don’t have a PR team because it’s not about us congratulating ourselves. We do it for the love of doing it, not for the awards that we can get, or the attention it could bring us,” he says.

Doug points out that he quietly changed the industry without doing press releases, press tours, or podcasts. He just went out and built the right product and sold it to the customers that needed it.

What we saw as success five years ago won’t necessarily be what we see as success five years hence. But the success that Doug wants is having happy customers with whom he is truly friends, and watching his employees succeed.

He recounts an incident that occurred years ago where one of his employees confided that she may be headed toward divorce. She used to worry when her husband threatened to leave. But not anymore. She was no longer worried about a divorce because she had a good job that could support her if she was alone.

She told Doug that it was so empowering to feel like she did not owe her life to her husband anymore, and could be her own person with the ability to succeed and not have to worry about her future. “That’s been worth every penny right there, to give that to a person. That’s success,” he declares.