The Future of Law Schools: Law School Innovation, Lawyer Recruitment & the Legal Industry Supply Chain

Topics: Access to Justice, Government, Justice Ecosystem, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Executive Events, Legal Innovation, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The importance of law schools to the interconnectedness of the various components of the legal services industry was analyzed in depth at the Legal Executive Institute’s recent conference, The Future of Law Schools. Indeed, the tension between innovation in the legal curriculum, on the one hand, and the difficulties of integrating those changes with the legacy legal market and its myriad players, on the other, were themes that ran through the entire conference.

That tension was most vividly on display in the final session of the day, titled A Law School Performance Report Card: A Conversation about Education, Rankings, and What Matters in Entry-Level Hiring.The session was moderated by William D. Henderson, Professor of Law & Stephen F. Burns Chair on the Legal Profession at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

The bulk of the session was a dialogue, led by Henderson, that featured three law firm recruiting officers and an operations director of a large corporate legal department:

  •        David Cambria, Global Director of Operations for Law, Compliance and Government Relations at the Archer Daniels Midland Co.;
  •        Ari A. Katz, Chief Recruiting Officer at Womble Bond Dickinson;
  •        Kay Nash, Chief Talent Officer at Wiley Rein; and
  •        Natasha Zech, Director of Attorney Recruiting, Diversity and Development at Williams & Connolly.

Progress in the Curriculum

Earlier sessions in the day had provided a taste of the wide range of innovations underway at many law schools, despite the legal academy’s recent bad press about declining enrollments and job prospects, and its reputation for conservatism and unwillingness to change.

There were examples of multidisciplinary teaching, “semester in practice” programs, “professional identity” skills training, innovative cross-disciplinary certificate programs, distance-education programs, collaborations with startup businesses, and an entire panel focusing on innovation in teaching the skills at the crossroads of legal and technology.

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William D. Henderson, Professor of Law & Stephen F. Burns Chair on the Legal Profession at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law

And yet, despite having some of the best examples of innovative programming in the legal academy on hand, there was still plenty of grumbling about the limitations that traditional hiring practices — and, not least, their reliance on the tyranny of law school ranking systems and the perceived hierarchy of schools — place on innovation.

Gaps in the Supply Chain

Cambria of ADM brought a legal operations perspective to the conversation. He was frank about his needs when working with law firms.

He described his panel of firms and what ADM looks for: Firms with “practice wisdom” that are “operationally aware” of the client’s business. That means, among other things, looking at all the resources a firm brings to the table, including back-office operations and non-JD skill sets, he said.

When looking at a firm, Cambria explained he wasn’t interested in “suspender-snapping” about grades and the law school pedigrees of its lawyers. It’s mostly about how the work will be delivered — and, by the way, he said that one of the top five outside organizations ADM works with is not a law firm at all, but one of the Big 4 accounting and audit firms.

In fact, Cambria said he spends a lot of time looking at the “machinery” he can put his problem into at a given firm to get a business result. “Where are their people and lawyers who think more broadly about not just the law, but the application of the law?” he asked. “Don’t tell me what I should do, tell me how I should do it in the context of the business. I need to know how to operationalize the answers.”

With regard to firm staff with wider skills such as data analysis or process management, Cambria was fairly blunt. Law firms say those skills are important, he noted, but they don’t give the people with those skills much positional influence — many are still relegated to the back office. That is very frustrating, he added, especially when firms’ hiring models just replicate the skill sets that firms have always hired for. If they want to really change, law firms have to figure out how to change hiring processes to integrate and compensate people with a wider range of skills, Cambria said.

Old Habits Die Hard

One of the barriers to a more flexible hiring approach is the entrenched on-campus interview (OCI) hiring cycle. That cycle favors the traditional students — firms and students evaluate each other all at once at a single point in the year, largely on traditional criteria. Wiley Rein’s Nash noted that the need for lawyers with some of the non-traditional technology and process skills is more sporadic. It also tends to be project-driven and can pop up at any time, which makes it hard for those students and firms to find each other, because the recruitment necessarily takes place outside of the ODI cycle, she said.

These were eye-opening exchanges. For law schools, it’s a frustrating situation, because for all the innovative programs focused on new skills and technology, there is still a talent supply chain that favors traditional lawyers trained in the traditional theoretical curriculum, evaluated by traditional measures such as grades. And law school rankings continue to favor the same top schools.

A law school that wants to innovate and develop new talents and capabilities is, to some extent, caught in the crossfire between a buy-side that’s ready for it, and a sell-side that’s not quite there yet.

Listen to “A Law School Performance Report Card: A Conversation about Education, Rankings, and What Matters in Entry-Level Hiring”, the final panel of the recent Future of Law Schools conference.