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Saturday, April 07, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 55 (Dan Hunter)

The Future is Already Here…

Well, the end (of this symposium) is nigh, and I can’t thank enough the Prawfs editors, Mike M, and Dan R, for the opportunity of joining you for this discussion of the future of legal education. I’ve loved reading the thoughts of all contributors, and to have had the chance to contribute in some small way to the discussion.

In looking back over my entries, I’m struck by how dystopian of legal education my vision must seem. I think this is because I always overestimate the speed of technology uptake, and underestimate the effect of culture. You’ll have to forgive me on this: I have spent my entire career professionally watching the way that digital tech has transformed our life. But the other experiences that drive my worldview are hanging out in the startup world and running a tiny, everyone-thinks-we’re-gonna-fail law school (that I started just as the legal education market really tanked). So, I’m primed to assume that things are going to change a lot. In a negative way. And very fast.

But perhaps we should be very hopeful about the future of legal education. Law profs and law deans are a smart bunch. The university has existed more-or-less in its current form within the Western tradition for more than 900 years. And the lessons of the innovation generation are being built out into the wide range of law school responses, as Andrew Perlman sagely documents.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt from those who run startup accelerators is that they exist to de-risk the naturally dangerous bets that you have to place on the future. They’re there to help people think through the hard bit of innovation: of working out whether this new thing is going to work or not. And it turns out that this kind of knowledge exists within universities. Lots of people out there, some in university design schools or in university-hosted innovation incubators/accelerators, know how to get us to the new, new thing. If there was one thing I’d advocate is for law schools to learn how to innovate cheaply and without undue risk. The lesson of the Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works (and innumerable startups since then) is that significant innovation is almost certainly not going to come out of a committee, and it needs to be stuck away in a corner, with a small amount of funding, a limited timeframe, a forgiving governance structure, and the right to fail. This is the opposite of how our normal process in schools works: the faculty governance structures within universities privilege consensus over danger. (I am, for example, acutely aware that given my bomb-throwing in this symposium, when my gig here in Australia is up I’m almost certainly never going to be asked to run a US law school…)

In the meantime, I imagine that most law schools will adapt. Of course, some will fare better than others. The T14 don’t have to do a lot of changing. Everyone else has a bigger challenge. Given what has been said in this symposium, my guess is that the current “new normal” of law school admissions is actually a plateau, and admissions are about to get worse over the medium term. But even without a further downturn, some more schools are going to struggle and maybe even close, that much is pretty obvious.

I’ve loved contributing to this symposium, and so please forgive me trespassing on your time with one last parting thought, one that I actually think is the most important thing I’ve learned:

We must collectively learn how to think about what to do next, not what to do next.

Thinking about the commercial future of our law schools and our universities doesn’t come naturally to law professors. We are selected and trained for other skills. Deans don’t magically come across these abilities either when they enter the Dean’s Suite—it’s not like they’re serial entrepreneurs tapped for the decanal role because of their last successful exit; they’re almost always law professors who have agreed to take on the position, for reasons ranging across the spectrum from very bad to very good. Even the best-intentioned law deans in the world can’t be expected to know how to think about the future of their school. And the rest of the university doesn’t have much else to offer here, generally differing from law schools only in the range of academic disciplines represented, not in their ability to see the way ahead.

So…the next few years promise to be interesting. We will see Mark Tushnet’s thousand blooming flowers. Or, as my all-time favorite author, William Gibson, once-observed: the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

It will be fascinating (and maybe terrifying) to see which one of the utopian, dystopian, or atopian futures lies in store for each of us.

Dan Hunter (Swinburne, Australia)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on April 7, 2018 at 10:43 AM | Permalink


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