In recent years, the legal world has witnessed a revolution that continues to unfold before our very eyes. The seeds of this change began with the Internet boom in the late 1990s, which yielded seamless connectivity with anyone in the world and spawned a host of new applications that enabled professionals to use industrial processes and tools to deliver services in a scalable manner. The recession of the early 2000s catalyzed this change by placing corporate legal departments under unprecedented pressure to run their function like a business unit, delivering higher levels of service and driving costs down. The legal departments responded by investing in a broad array of automation technologies, leveraging a mix of domestic and off-shore alternative legal service providers, bringing more work in house and demanding that their law firms provide better value propositions.
Historically, lawyers received training in legal doctrine and theory in law school and then learned their practical skills as associates at law firms through on-the-job training that was billed to clients. With many clients no longer seeing value in this approach, law firms drastically curtailed their hiring of recent law graduates. The impact of these changes on law graduates and law schools has been well chronicled and includes high rates of lawyer unemployment, high debt loads and declining law school applications and enrollment.
Law schools now face the challenge of producing lawyers who are not only more “practice ready” than ever, but who also have the skills to operate in a new world where the practice of law depends increasingly on processes and technology and where legal services are tightly integrated with other aspects of the client’s business operations. To address this issue and maximize their students’ employability in the modern legal market, a handful of law schools are innovating and trying something entirely new–collaborating with industry, alternative legal service providers and law firms on how best to re-create the law school curriculum.
In October, the University of Colorado School of Law brought together 35 thought leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including general counsel from Fortune 100 companies, managing partners from AmLaw 100 law firms and law professors for a roundtable discussion of what schools can and should be doing to achieve the best possible outcome in this changing legal environment. The roundtable yielded the makings of a roadmap for progress that includes: 1) understanding the competencies valued most by target employers in today’s market, 2) expanding law school curriculums to align with these requirements and cover less traditional aptitudes such as project management and negotiation, and 3) developing vehicles for teaching students business acumen.
Law schools should use their understanding of what consumers of legal services want not only to tune individual course content, but also to provide students with defined career development roadmaps that tie together selected doctrinal classes, experiential learning opportunities, and work experience to give students a compelling foundation for careers in a particular industry or area.
A number of law schools are starting to launch these sorts of “market-focused” activities. Colorado Law is leveraging the learnings from the roundtable and other industry research to launch a program this summer that focuses on the needs of the technology industry. Students will spend four weeks at the beginning of the summer in a boot camp designed to complement their doctrinal learnings, focusing on four modules: 1) business fundamentals; 2) the technology industry; 3) the practical legal skills required by technology companies; and 4) the use of process and technology to deliver legal services efficiently. Following the boot camp, the students will spend between 10 weeks and seven months working at technology companies to gain additional business acumen and industry experience.The alternative legal service providers have shown that using standard industrial concepts can create a competitive advantage in the legal industry. It seems logical that law schools taking this path will see similar results.