Legal analysis has been the primary focus of law schools since long before the 1973 movie The Paper Chase dramatized the agonies of learning case law. In the not too distant past, the majority of graduates of top law schools took their highly honed understanding of case law to firms where they worked hard for years trying to make partner and aimed to spend the rest of their professional lives working for one employer.

Today’s legal landscape could not be more different. The legal profession has undergone dramatic change in the past two decades, not to mention the past two centuries.

Most of today’s law graduates likely will work in multiple sectors as well as for multiple employers. Law firm partners’ ability to offer individualized training is diminishing as they face increasing expectations to respond to clients within the day — or even the hour. General counsel, reacting to their own economic pressures, are unwilling to pay for the time a young associate spends learning on the job.

No matter which sector a lawyer practices in, law is no longer for people who “can’t do the numbers.” At every stage of a legal career, the most successful lawyers — in firms and beyond — need to understand not only their clients’ legal challenges, but also the business, organizational and strategic contexts in which they arise. Operating in an increasingly global world, lawyers also must possess superior communication and leadership skills to work effectively on teams that cross organizational, institutional and national boundaries.

Yet legal education largely has failed to keep up with changes in the industry. The excellent legal analysis and advocacy skills that are the hallmark of all top law school programs remain a priority, as they must. But mastering legal analysis is not sufficient. Today’s law students also need a much more sophisticated understanding of what it means to work as well as think like lawyers in 21st century careers.

With that in mind, Northwestern University School of Law undertook a comprehensive analysis of what capabilities today’s law students will need to excel in their careers. We, with the assistance of Blaqwell Inc., a legal consulting firm, gathered extensive research on legal education, law firm and other professional services firm training programs, legal profession trends and alumni career trajectories; received input from faculty, alumni and students; and talked directly to the lawyers affecting the trends.

Managing partners, general counsel and other legal leaders of top law firms, government and nonprofits exchanged invaluable frank perspectives with us in focus groups that took place throughout the United States and in London.

The outcome is a major new plan to screen for and develop the competencies that are at the heart of our analysis. A core set of competencies — in communication, strategic understanding, basic quantitative skills, cross-cultural work, project management and leadership — will be stressed as never before at Northwestern Law in a number of innovative initiatives. Among them, an accelerated two-year J.D. program targeted at high achievers will be launched in 2009. All of the initiatives will make law school as relevant as possible to our students’ future careers.

Northwestern Law’s communications initiative is focused not only on helping students write excellent briefs and present effective appellate arguments — which most law schools already do well — but also on greatly enhancing their abilities to communicate with nonlawyers. Law students must master communication of complex legal ideas clearly and concisely with nonlawyers in nonlegal formats — free from legalese — including verbal presentations, one-page memos, bullet-point lists and PowerPoint presentations.

Teamwork will become a greater focus to mimic the ways successful lawyers work throughout their careers. As cases and deals are increasingly large and global, lawyers must work with teams of other lawyers across practice groups, firms and geographic areas. They also must work effectively with teams of nonlawyers. Knowing how to lead a team also is a must, even for junior associates who often head up teams of paralegals or contract attorneys. The ever-increasing globalization of business means that every lawyer must have an awareness of and respect for non-U.S. systems of law. But this does not mean that law schools need more “international law” courses. Rather, Northwestern will offer students more opportunities for participating in non-U.S. experiences and internships, joining multicultural teams and developing cross-cultural sensitivities.

A greater business focus

Quantitative abilities will be covered in a new course that will develop a fundamental understanding of the principles of accounting, finance and statistics to give context that attorneys need in deciding legal issues. Other courses will enhance understanding of the contexts in which lawyers and their clients operate and cover strategic approaches to business and organizational problems and decision-making.

Almost all involved in our exhaustive look at legal education agreed that the third year could be used more effectively. Besides offering an accelerated J.D., another way we will make that happen is through an intense faculty-supervised experiential semester in which students in the traditional J.D. program can work full time at Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic representing clients, at internships or externships in the United States or abroad, or in programs conducting in-depth research.

The new initiatives build upon a strategic plan that Northwestern has been refining since its implementation in 1998. Under that plan, Northwestern Law became the only major law school that insists on substantial post-college work experience prior to law school and interviews applicants for interpersonal skills and maturity. Based on great insights of industry leaders, our new plan is sure to help our students maximize success in careers that inevitably will present challenges that extend far beyond the law.

David Van Zandt is the dean of Northwestern University School of Law. Michelle Greene, a consultant with Blaqwell Inc., a legal industry consulting firm, assisted Northwestern Law in researching and developing its proposals.