Relative to other professional schools, law schools are extremely disengaged from professional practice-- they seek neither to understand nor to influence it. As I have said previously in this space, law has lagged behind the world of global competition--and technology-driven clients--over the last 15 years. It's now entered a whiplash period where it must catch up. If clients have to change 20 percent, then law firms must change 30 to 40 percent (see Jordan Furlong’s great post on how U.K. changes will migrate to the U.S.), and the "supply chain" to law firms (e.g., law schools and certain companies and service providers) will experience the most dramatic change.
Over the past six months, I have participated in a number of symposia at law schools and have visited with eight deans, including David Van Zandt at Northwestern and Rick Matasar at New York Law School. How did we get here? In the simplest terms, we can identify three phases of legal education.
Phase I was the apprenticeship system, where folks "read" law under more senior lawyers. Some refer to this model as "Lincoln's way" because it produced great thinkers and advocates like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Justice John Marshall, and most of the signers of the Constitution. This 1-1 apprenticeship model gradually evolved into a trade school model, where practicing lawyers would supplement their meager income by lecturing on law at the local YMCA night law school.
Phase II, pioneered by Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard, created the professional school, and centered the curriculum around the case method and classroom discussion, which is the template for every law school in the country. The American Bar Association and later the Association of American Law Schools worked to eradicate the trade school model, ratcheting up admissions standards and driving the emergence of the faculty as a distinct profession.
Phase III reflects the last generation or so, where law schools have grown more distant from the profession, and the legal academy has come to define itself as primarily engaged in a scholarly pursuit (like, say literature or history), as opposed to a professional pursuit, like, say medicine or business.
-Students graduate from law school with a lot of debt but without client-marketable skills, so their primary option is to serve long apprenticeships in law firms, beginning with very rote work which is less intellectually engaging than law school or judicial clerkships. While law students who get the higher paying law firm jobs achieve good salaries much faster than medical students, their time to professional independence is longer. This is not because law is more complex or riskier than medicine, but because legal training is inferior.
-It's no surprise that law graduates don't acquire client-marketable skills, since so many law faculty don't care much about the practice of law. Even in 1981 when I went to law school, the faculty generally held law firms in low regard, and clients were presumed unethical without the constant guidance of lawyers (in speaking to a law school dean the other day, she immediately equated client with "Enron"). It's nuts for law school to be primarily about understanding appellate decision-making and not at all about understanding clients.
-Law school is weak on empiricism--unlike, for example, medical school, which is moving in the direction of being ever more evidence-based. Almost every argument in law school is a hypothetical grounded in abstraction and unproved in experience.
If law schools aren't figuring out the future, who is? Or is the future of law practice not important? If law schools don't imagine a future any different from the present, is it any wonder many lawyers embrace the fallacy of an unchanging and unchangeable profession?
As I have suggested previously, general counsel are pushing for big discounts for junior associate time, and law firms are deleveraging, which means straight-from-law-school-hiring is going to drop for at least three years and probably forever (tell me again why we're flying to Duke Law School to interview so we'll have an inexperienced lawyer for a project in 2013 and who, if everyone is really lucky, may become eligible for partnership in 2022?). Law schools will have to produce fully-functioning lawyers who can quickly become economically viable--not just proto appellate clerks.
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