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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Bee by Bee: Facing the Multitude of Legal Educations’ Problems Beyond Cost-1) Making Students Not Just Practice Ready but Work Ready

In an earlier post I analogized the problems facing legal education to being attacked by a swarm of bees coming from a broken hive.  The broken hive is the broken higher education financing system--and fixing that is a necessary first step to making the long overdue changes to how legal education in structured and delivered.  But that doesn't mean we have to stand by in the meantime and ignore the individual bees.

One of the angriest bees we're facing right now is preparing our students for employment in the face of the disappearance of high paying big law firm jobs that allowed students to repay the large amounts of money they had borrowed to attend law school. (And this isn't just about debtors-every one of our students has given up three years when they could have been advancing in another field or pursuing other graduate training).

But the reality we face is, as Moody warns, that the legal services model has changed forever.    And curriculum and teaching methods have to change too.  It's not possible anymore to separate legal education from the market for lawyers, but teaching the skills they might need to succeed in a traditional law practice doesn't seem to be moving the dial much.

A trend I see with my health law students is greater opportunities to work on compliance issues at hospitals, companies and even government agencies that in the past did not hire lawyers for these jobs.  Regulation, especially in healthcare, has become so complex that it just doesn't make sense to try and train non-lawyers to keep up.  If you don't know what Red Flag Rules are--and how extensively they are affecting just about every business that takes in money, follow this link.

Legal education's critics and accreditors are deeply suspicious if not scornful of any but a job requiring bar passage—under the theory that only these jobs fulfil the promise made to prospective students that they will be qualified for employment as lawyers.    Well, snark if you will, what it means to be employed as a lawyer is changing.

   If an employer’s preference is to hire a licensed attorney (or will pay a licensed attorney more than someone without that credential) then that's not the equivalent of a job at Starbucks or even one that involves going to Starbucks and bringing back coffee for other people.  It's an example of how integrated legal issues have become in regulated industries like health care, banking, oil & gas, and (thank you Elizabeth Warren) consumer products.   

So maybe we need to look at practice ready skills more broadly to include not just traditional advocacy or corporate drafting tasks but rather a broader set of general work skills.  For example, here is a great article by Professor Susan Wawrose at the University of Dayton based on her extensive interviews with legal employers about what they want to see in the law students they hire.  Yet many of the issues the employers raise are not about the ability to get a document into evidence or draft a non-disclosure agreement, they are about the kind of job skills (like eagerness to do the work assigned) that any employer would want.

We sometimes forget that even though the ratio is shifting, probably at least half of our students have gone straight through school without ever having a full-time office based job.  From what I've seen, law students are at a disadvantage in a business setting because they often don't have the work experience of the other employees at their level.   A law firm is (or was--that's changing too) a very protected environment where lawyers don't have to worry about "business stuff."  In a more general setting, individual managers will have to do things like make budgets, manage people, and read financial statements.   

There is a lot we could do--short of a dual degree MBA-to bring our students the kind of financial, communication, management and negotiating skills they need to quickly join the flat teams of today's workplace (as opposed to being at the bottom of the hierarchy of a large law firm).   Many law schools have aleady jumped into this with leadership institutes, communications courses, even coding courses.  .

Many of us have business schools associated with our institutions who might want to share their expertise with our students--and have us share our expertise with their students.   This list is a good example of business skills that are quite different from the advocacy type skills that might first come to mind in training a law student.  Here's an interesting list of quant skills that a first year MBA student--and its likely that quite a few of the executives a young lawyer would be dealing with have MBAs or a business major--would be expected to have-do our graduating students even know what these things are, let alone how to do them?

We can't stay still as the world of work changes.  Please feel free to share in the comments section any work your law school is doing in this area.


Posted by Jennifer Bard on May 8, 2014 at 05:30 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


This is a great post. My thought is that until law schools start hiring faculty who have spent time practicing or otherwise doing the sorts of jobs that the vast majority of students would like to have, things are not going to change in a meaningful way. The ideal is to have faculty who are themselves "practice ready," in addition to being star intellectuals.

Posted by: Anon | May 8, 2014 11:42:43 PM

I think the scorn for JD Advantage comes not from the concept itself but from the (probably accurate) perception that it has been gamed in the past by law schools as part of a pattern of dishonest employment statistics. When trust is lost, statistics that require nuanced judgement to code correctly are going to naturally come under suspicion.

Posted by: brad | May 9, 2014 10:19:04 AM


I'm enjoying this series, and I hope to work it into the conversation here on my own faculty.

Thinking creatively about emerging areas of job growth, such as "compliance" is hard for law schools - it's certainly hard for me. It doesn't seem to lend itself to conceptualization as a field of study relatable to something like law practice. Nonetheless, it's our duty to figure out what the lawyers of the future need, and find a way to provide it to them. As law becomes more interdisciplinary (e.g., accounting, consulting, finance, compliance), we have to figure out how to look beyond ourselves. Harder than it sounds.

Anon, while I am personally on the "practice ready" side of the debate over what law schools should be doing, I'm not sure what you describe would help. No doubt, a law faculty comprised of -say, 50% - people who had practiced for ten years would be a lot different than one drawn from the usual clerkship-practice stint-VAP factory. In many ways, I think this kind of "throwback" would be a real improvement. However, as one of the other Prawfs here (Jeff Lipshaw?) noted, it won't take long for "practice-ready" profs to lose their skills in the academy. Unless you're a clinician, the things you do for good teaching don't look much like things you do to practice well. The gravitational pull of institutional norms is going to leach a lot of what you suggest experienced lawyer-profs would bring to the table, and in remarkably short order.

Posted by: adam | May 9, 2014 5:57:30 PM

In response to the previous, I suppose one could align the incentives by changing the tenure requirements so that they place weight on practice-related activities.

Posted by: anon | May 12, 2014 12:39:54 AM

Brad: "I think the scorn for JD Advantage comes not from the concept itself but from the (probably accurate) perception that it has been gamed in the past by law schools as part of a pattern of dishonest employment statistics. When trust is lost, statistics that require nuanced judgement to code correctly are going to naturally come under suspicion."

Yes. Law schools have long forfeited trust on such things. I would like to see the actual job titles and salaries.

Also, in a survey to which I wish I had recorded the link, I saw a survey with the question 'are you actively seeking another job' broken down by non-professional, professional, 'JD Advantage' anf 'bar passage required'. The rates for the first three were sharply higher than for the last. The 'JD Advantage' jobs grouped with the others.

Posted by: Barry | May 13, 2014 7:42:46 AM

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