In this week’s Law Firm Disrupted, we look at a hypothetical question laid out by a top law school dean: What would take the place of law schools if they closed up shop tomorrow?
I’m Roy Strom, the author of this weekly Law.com briefing on change in the legal marketplace. I’m not closing shop tomorrow, so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A Law School Dean Ponders a ‘Kirkland & Ellis Law School’
Last week, I wrote a feature on Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and efforts made by its dean, Daniel Rodriguez, to create a prestigious law school known for being forward-thinking.
The profile was loosely tied to a “global legal innovation summit” Northwestern hosted last Thursday and Friday, where Rodriguez gave a presentation expanding on some of the questions I spoke with him about for the story.
The speech, which is worth watching here at the 4 hour and 41 minute mark, was a clear-eyed look at both the current state and the future possibilities of “innovation” in the legal education market. Rodriguez comes to the conclusion that law schools that have focused on tech training or other skills aimed at changing legal services delivery have yet to “move the needle” on demand for their students, rankings for their own schools or their own economic predicament.
That is in large part due to at least 10 “conditions” that currently exist and are limiting legal education innovation. I won’t list them all here, but they include the formal structure of offering only JD and LLM degrees; a university schedule that was created more than 100 years ago; and, of course, accreditation and credentialing requirements.
One solution offered by Rodriguez: “Blue-sky thinking.”
As if on cue, following Rodriguez’s speech, fellow Northwestern Law professor Emerson Tiller asked him a question that requires blue-sky thinking: What entity other than law schools is well-suited to compete for the market to train future lawyers?
“Is it necessary that we continue as a law school to be valuable or relevant in the future of education?” Tiller asked.
Rodriguez responded by riffing on the idea of today’s Big Law firms training their next ranks of associates.
“We have the incentive and expertise to do better than DLA Piper does to provide a full-fledged legal education,” Rodriguez said. “If all 200 law schools went out of business tomorrow, or if there were 20 law schools rather than 200 law schools in the United States, I don’t think the DLA Piper Law School or the Kirkland & Ellis Law School would be anything we would say is better than what Northwestern or Stanford does.”
I have no doubt he’s right. Today’s law firms are not law schools. And I don’t think law schools, writ large, are going away anytime soon.
But Rodriguez’s answer still presupposes that a “full-fledged legal education” is what a law firm would provide if it was in the business of training its associates. Does the same fantastic scenario in which a law firm can teach law students still contain the same accreditation requirements as today? And anyway, if law firms were tasked with training their own workforce, would an intellectual property boutique teach the same way as an M&A powerhouse?
Rodriguez has thought more than most about how the legal education space might be changing. So it is interesting and worth noting that he would bring up law firms as a potential competitor to law schools, no matter how unlikely that scenario is now.
But Rodriguez also described what he saw as more practical threats to legal education—or at least the emerging “innovative” set of courses aimed at new legal service delivery jobs—likely coming from engineering schools or business schools. They have faculty who understand the technical and multidisciplinary skills that Rodriguez advocates that law firms should be teaching.
Rodriguez said there is “no intrinsic reason” to believe law schools are better at that training than those would-be competitors. If they did begin competing on that front, Rodriguez said the competition would be “serious and severe.”
“Which brings me to a controversial normative point,” Rodriguez said. “To me, that is OK. We face that competition and we ought to face that competition. We should compete on a level playing field.”
➤➤ If you’re interested in law school innovation, check out a new Law.com briefing from my colleague Karen Sloan. It’s called Ahead of the Curve (though we did think about calling it The Law School Disrupted) and delivers by email on Monday evenings.
Roy’s Reading Corner
On Blue-Sky Thinking: Edward Walters, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and CEO of Fastcase, ponders what a law firm developed by Amazon.com Inc. would look like. Another example of out-of-the-box thinking, Walters writes that Amazon’s “customer-focused innovation would be a great roadmap for firms that want to create the next generation of legal services.”
From Walters: “I’m not suggesting that Amazon is going to get into the legal services market, and of course it has a terrific in-house legal team for its own legal matters. But if it set out to remake the law firm business model serving clients, in the way that it changed online purchasing, what innovations would it pursue?”
On Measuring Change: Law firm consultant Jordan Furlong writes about a set of questions that continues to bedevil the legal industry: What are the baseline standards of competence? Are those standards being met? And how can you measure whether clients are receiving satisfactory service?
In the end, Furlong boils those questions down to one: Are today’s legal services any good?
From Furlong: “If we’re being really honest with ourselves, as a profession, we would recognize and concede that we can’t actually prove definitively that legal services are any good, because we’ve never applied ourselves fully to the question of what a ‘good legal service’ ought to be.”
On Legal Tech Adoption: Jake Heller of Casetext writes for Law.com with a series of tips on how to get lawyers to engage with new technologies.
He writes: “I want to use this column to impart to fellow legal tech entrepreneurs, as well as attorneys and law firm staff interested in using technology to better their firm’s practice, a bit of wisdom earned the hard way: Getting attorneys to use even great technology is really hard work, but there are ways to get there if you make it your central focus.”