In a competition for the best oxymoron, “innovation in legal education” would surely be a contender. After all, law schools have taught students largely the same knowledge and skillset for decades, despite dramatic changes to the modern legal marketplace. One explanation for the lack of innovation is that lawyers are trained to be backward-looking – to focus on precedents and the way things were done in the past. It’s not a natural instinct for lawyers and legal educators to look at how the practice of law is changing and what it might look like tomorrow. Fortunately, change is coming to legal education, and it’s coming from unexpected quarters.
A Brief History of Legal Education
The story of modern legal education usually begins with Harvard Law School’s Christopher Columbus Langdell, the pioneer of the case method. Langdell believed that law students should do more than simply read and memorize summaries of the law. He thought students should learn how to extract and synthesize the law from cases and be able to apply the law to new sets of facts. This case method of instruction has been widely adopted, and it still deserves an important place in legal education today. But it hasn’t done much to help students understand how law is actually practiced.
In the late 20th century, law schools responded to the case method’s shortcomings with an important innovation: clinical education and additional instruction in legal writing and research. Students now learn a range of skills left out of the Langdellian model, such as client interviewing, factual investigation, modern techniques for legal research, document drafting, oral advocacy, and the like. But even this training has assumed a traditional style of lawyering, one where a client seeks out a lawyer to handle a matter from soup to nuts. Until recently, the introduction of skills training hasn’t done much to inform students about how legal services are actually marketed, managed, automated, unbundled, outsourced, and effectively and efficiently delivered today.
You might expect that more change would come to legal education – as it did with the case method – from the most elite schools. But necessity breeds invention, and the elite schools (for the most part) don’t have much need. Their graduates are generally doing fine with the traditional model of legal education. Certainly, elite schools are experimenting with new courses and programs, but the experimentation hasn’t taken on the sense of urgency you find at the vast majority of other law schools. The typical law school has been hit hard by a more than 40 percent drop in applications in the last five years, and many graduates from these schools have had significant difficulty finding professional employment. These law schools are eager to look for more effective ways to prepare students to compete in the modern legal marketplace.
Responding to Change
A few law schools have responded to the new challenges. They have recognized that the traditional curriculum – even supplemented by clinical education, enhanced legal writing instruction and improved problem-solving skills – no longer gives students the advantage they need in the modern legal marketplace. For example, Michigan State has established its Reinvent Law program, and my school (Suffolk University Law School) has an Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation as well as a concentration – essentially a law school major – focusing on new competencies. Suffolk is also creating an Accelerator-to-Practice Program, a three-year course of study that will include an embedded fee-generating law practice in the law school that will teach students firsthand how to leverage new competencies to deliver legal services to the public efficiently, effectively and profitably. The Accelerator Program will integrate traditional clinical education with new insights about the delivery of legal and law-related services.
So what does this new kind of curriculum look like? The particulars vary at each school, but at Suffolk (for example) students in the new concentration must take courses in legal project management, automated document assembly, and a survey course on 21st-century lawyering. They also have to complete a three-credit internship at a company or law firm that applies innovative approaches to the delivery of legal and law-related services, such as an automated document assembly company, the project management department of a law firm, or a legal process outsourcer. Students also must attend six hours of seminars and programs by leading experts in the field and complete four electives, many of which are offered jointly with our University’s Business School. Students in the Accelerator Program will learn how to create a business, marketing and technology plan for a small practice, and they will receive specialized practical training through the law school’s embedded fee-generating law firm.
The Value for Law Firms
Law students who acquire this new skillset will be better positioned to help law firms compete. Clients are putting increasing pressure on firms to cut costs and offer alternatives to the billable hour (i.e., alternative fee arrangements or AFAs). The billable hour typically rewards lawyers for spending more time on a matter, but firms make more money under AFAs when lawyers spend less time delivering high-quality legal services. These efficiencies can be achieved through the appropriate use of law practice technology and other innovative practices. For example, firms of all sizes can become more profitable by hiring lawyers who are at least familiar with project management, knowledge management, automated document assembly, expert systems, law practice management tools, cost-effective electronic discovery, and the proper use of social media for marketing and investigations.
Firms that continue to bill by the hour also can benefit, because clients are checking up on their lawyers’ technological competence. For instance, a corporate counsel at Kia Motors America recently began conducting “technology audits” of outside counsel to ensure that they make efficient and effective use of available technology. Suffolk’s Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation is partnering with Casey Flaherty, the corporate counsel at Kia who developed the audit, to automate and enhance it. Lawyers can no longer hide their inefficient use of technology.
In sum, students who graduate with these new skills can offer traditional employers a “two for one”—traditional legal skills plus training and insights into how to deliver legal services more effectively and efficiently, and in a manner that clients increasingly demand.
The Value for Non-Traditional Legal Employers
Educating students about the modern legal marketplace also can give graduates an advantage when seeking employment outside of traditional legal jobs, such as in the increasingly large and prosperous industry that provides law-related services. For example, law graduates are taking jobs with companies that provide—or are creating companies that offer—legal process outsourcing, electronic discovery services, online client lead generation, automated document assembly, expert systems, and similar services. A growing number of traditional legal employers (i.e., law firms) also are now hiring lawyers to perform non-traditional jobs, including in information technology, knowledge management, and project management. Students at schools that teach new competencies will acquire the knowledge and skills that these non-traditional professional jobs often demand.
The legal marketplace is rapidly evolving, and a few law schools are responding to these developments with new and innovative offerings. The goal is to ensure that students can compete more effectively in a modern and continuously changing legal profession that looks far different from the profession of just a few years ago. “Innovation in legal education” is no longer an oxymoron. It is becoming the norm.
Originally published in Law Practice Today, January innovation issue, 2014. © 2014 by the American Bar Association.