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Thursday, February 02, 2017

What Susskind Can Teach Law School Educators

            To be a law school leader today, one needs to listen to what Richard Susskind has to say.  When he talked about the impact that email would have on legal counseling in the 1990s, many professionals failed to listen.  When he talked about the impact of outsourcing of legal work in the 2000s, many professionals still failed to listen.  Today, all leaders in law are on warning that what Susskind has to say is worth listening to.

            The payoff for law school leaders from reading The Future of the Professions comes both from its discussion of the future of the legal profession and its examination of the future of education.  In short, legal education is the crosshairs of disruptive changes to both the profession it serves and to the basic model of higher education.  As Susskind explains, both educators and lawyers need to reconsider the historic emphasis placed on expertise and knowledge. 

            In legal education, the legacy model was focused on knowledge transmission and the goal of teaching students to “think like a lawyer.”  The Socratic method and large classrooms for lectures, with a “sage on a stage,” were the norm.  in the 1990s, smaller classes, including legal clinics began to develop a range of competencies beyond those developed in larger lecture classes.  And even some traditional larger lecture classes introduced “non-traditional” competencies and sought to broaden the skill set developed by the Socratic method.

            The revolution in legal education now starting to take root is to identify and develop competencies beyond the traditional focus on legal doctrine, critical thinking, and practical skills.  For an increasing number of businesses, the approach from first principles--“to what problem are the professions the solution?” is how Susskind puts it--is the starting place.  At Google, for example, the focus is not on traditional academic qualifications.  A few law firms are starting to get the memo as well, focusing on competencies other than traditional academic performance on exams and evaluating whether prospective lawyers bring strong “professional skills,” which includes entrepreneurial initiative and a creative problem solving attitude.  And for those lawyers who build a broader skillset, including how to analyze data sets and read a balance sheet as well as industry-specific knowledge (like the geology of oil and gas extraction for those working in that indsutry), they can bring the important skill “of thinking like a client” to their work.  This mindset, as Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler explained to Gillian Hadfield in Rules for A Flat World, enables lawyers to see the larger context for any particular legal issue (say, the public relations impact of a pre-trial motion).

            For legal educators, the challenge of moving the ship to recognize other sets of competencies is a formidable one.  The ABA has offered a helpful nudge, asking law schools to identify and detail the learning outcomes they value and how they are assessed.  Similarly, the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers effort has documented the increasing re-assessment of what competencies matter, publishing a report on The Whole Lawyer on the Character Quotient.  The headline of this report is that professional skills, including emotional intelligence, matter a lot.  In the language of Susskind, it is those skills—beyond knowledge of legal doctrine, critical thinking, and practical skills—that cannot be easily outsourced or replaced.

            Law schools can thrive in Susskind’s New Normal.  They must, however, as I explained in a recent piece, teach more than “law” to do so.  At our best, lawyers are able to take the initiative, be creative problem solvers, collaborate effectively, and adapt over time through lifelong learning.  To develop these skills, legal education would be wise to study the model outlined by Gallup, whose “Big Six” experiences for higher education apply to law school, calling for learning outside the traditional classroom and engaged mentorship.

            A number of law schools are starting to taking on the challenge of redesigning the law school experience, investing in project-based learning, taking the opportunity of a “flipped classroom” seriously, and preparing its students for a world of rapid change.  But for most law schools, the crisis following the Great Recession left them trying to hold on to the legacy model, albeit in a scaled down form.  For those hoping that is change enough, Susskind’s message could not be more clear—the future of the legal profession will change more over the next two decades than it has over the last two centuries.  If the traditional model of legal experience is kept largely in place, students will be left on their own to develop the competencies they need to adapt, survive, and thrive in a changing world.

Posted by Phil Weiser on February 2, 2017 at 11:29 PM | Permalink


You're welcome to buy into Susskind's singularitarian vision. But you should acknowledge that law schools as they exist now have no place in it. Susskind wants to see all the professions--including law and education--replaced by some utopian vision of wiki's and massive open online courses and crowdsourced wisdom. Yeah, maybe you'll get to make $400 a year in advertising revenue from your website as a telco law "virtual adjunct" in that brave new future. But don't pretend their vision would support any research or service or other functions of law schools.

Posted by: MOOCAlert | Feb 3, 2017 8:56:14 AM

Mr. Weiser,

All the data you generated about this at Colorado is rosy, is it not? Your deemphasis of the old classroom model at Colorado lead to the school's worst bar passage rates in decades. What a plan!

Posted by: MarcusNeff | Feb 3, 2017 7:27:59 AM

Hot-hand fallacy.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Feb 3, 2017 1:42:03 AM

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