This is the third part of a series exploring the key players in the legal industry ecosystem and the pressure they are exerting and enduring. The author, Lucy Endel Bassli, was assistant general counsel at Microsoft and recently founded InnoLegal Services and serves as Chief Legal Strategist for LawGeex.
One can say the entire legal ecosystem is a complicated riddle of chicken and egg. Where is the beginning of this interrelated set of influencing factors that are enabling the current state of confusion and professional schizophrenia?
Are law firms to blame because they have not been delivering anything new or different in decades? Are in-house legal departments not utilizing their buying power to encourage more change? Are law schools the real source of blame, because they have not been teaching anything substantially different in decades? Clearly there is no beginning and no end in this cycle — all these factors are connected.
After all, law schools will continue to produce the kind of graduates that are successfully finding work in law firms, which allows the schools to play a traditional role of supplier in the macroeconomic supply and demand model of the legal market. The law schools supply whatever the hiring “customers,” aka law firms, demand. But shouldn’t we hold our law schools to a higher standard? I think we should expect them to be the educators that we all want to look up to and learn from.
While no one wants to go to law school and feel they are part of a sausage factory of money-making outputs, the reality is that law schools are akin to a business. They need to attract enough students paying a certain tuition, and they need to produce lawyers who will find jobs. (In addition, the schools need to score high on the all-influential US News and World Report rankings of law schools). So, law schools, literally, can’t afford to be pure educators.
The market has become a harsh indicator of the changes in our legal industry. Law school admissions have continued to decline (although they bumped up this year) and internal philosophical differences within law schools often leave them paralyzed to react to this market trend. As tenured professors hold on to their tried-and-true curriculum (akin to partners at law firms resisting change), incoming students are interested in different topics and modern educational practices. These students often have very different career goals than students of the past.
While no one wants to go to law school and feel they are part of a sausage factory of money-making outputs, the reality is that law schools are akin to a business. They need to attract enough students paying a certain tuition, and they need to produce lawyers who will find jobs.
As we have all read, millennial-age lawyers are entering the workforce with different expectations than previous generations. Today’s law students were born into a time of such rapidly changing technology that instant access to information and the pace of disruption is often beyond the capability of faculty to accommodate (assuming they are interested in keeping up with the current trends). Millennials are also interested in a flexible work-life experience and alternatives to the traditional definition of a “successful” law school graduate — one who lands a high-powered job and works like crazy to reach some coveted status of partnership. Incoming law school administrators who are forward-looking and inspired by the future of legal practice see these tension and are beginning to make changes.
While some law schools are closing their doors because they cannot survive in the current market, others are seizing the air of innovation in legal services and choosing to lead the change. The number of law schools offering modernized curriculum and creative study programs is growing across the country, and every year new players come into the game. These schools are making changes, none of which look identical to each other, and each of which is reflective to that school’s culture, willingness, resources, and other factors that enable their own programming goals. Some schools are focused on technology, while others on teaching business-related skills. Some schools are expanding the hands-on practical application experience within their curriculum beyond the typical mock trial or moot court programs we are all familiar with. Others are developing strategic partnerships with commercial entities to create real-life experiences for their students. Those law schools are all challenging the traditions of a legal education, while still laying the foundation for the core skills that every lawyer needs.
Law school graduates today have more options than ever before regarding what they can do with their legal educations. It was always an option to get a legal degree and not practice law, but there were limited opportunities to actually apply the skills acquired in law school. Often graduates who ended up in different fields would simply see their legal education as some sort of foundation, but one with little practical benefit. That is changing now! The demand for skills related to legal practice is on the rise at a furious pace.
As the number of law schools offering new skillsets continues to rise, some have certainly become leaders at a time when tensions in the ecosystem are demanding creativity and innovation in order to compete.
Law firms and corporate legal departments are hiring people that have a combination of skillsets. At firms, newer positions like Chief Innovation Officer, Client Services Officer, or Practice Management Officer are giving professionals with legal education backgrounds and business operational experience new opportunities. For recent graduates, roles in project management, operations and technology are opening across a variety of legal industry employers. Beyond law firms and corporate legal departments, the legal aid community, alternative legal service providers and court systems are seeking these multi-faceted sets of skills. All of these new roles allow graduates to apply the traditional problem-solving skills they were taught with the related skills now being offered at more law schools around the country, for careers that are deeply in the legal industry, though not necessarily as practicing lawyers.
As the number of law schools offering new skillsets continues to rise, some have certainly become leaders at a time when tensions in the ecosystem are demanding creativity and innovation in order to compete. Schools like Harvard and Stanford are well known for their quite different programs. While Stanford Law’s Codex focuses on technology and educating interested law students and legal professionals in hardcore coding skills, Harvard’s Center is dedicated to the evolving legal profession and what it means for practicing lawyers or today’s educational landscape. Suffolk Law School’s Institute has partnered with a legal services company to give their law students practical experience in alternative legal services and legal technology.
Thankfully, there are now many more, including Northwestern, Michigan State, Duke, and others that offer some sort of training or courses related to the business and technology side of legal services. Classes in project management, data analytics, process improvement, financial modelling and change management are common at these law schools now. And some professors have even taken it upon themselves to introduce innovative programs and curriculum into their law schools, almost becoming the brand name of innovation for their law schools.
Whether it is the chicken or the egg, any effort to innovate the legal education system and curriculum is welcomed and quickly becoming the norm. Meanwhile, those law schools that are not keeping up will be left behind.