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April 15, 2010 6:16 PM

Welcome to the Future: Are Law Schools "Beached"?

Posted by Paul Lippe

A beached whale is a whale which stranded itself ... on a beach. Beaching is often fatal for whales, from dehydration, the body collapsing under its own weight or drowning....

Last week I spoke at the FutureEd Conference at New York Law School. The most compelling presentation came from my copanelist, United Technologies associate general counsel Paul Beach, who told the assembled academics that his company refused to pay for first-and second-year associate time because it was "worthless," and who faulted law schools for not preparing young lawyers adequately. (See The Am Law Daily's coverage of the panel here.)

When I asked Paul whether he had considered what not paying for newbie associates meant--they wouldn't be able to pay their tuition, thus leaving law schools with fewer resources--he replied, "not my problem." Paul is quite gracious and soft-spoken, so I suspect he chose that direct language to make sure he would be heard.  Presumably nothing he said was news, as these issues have been commonplace among GCs for a decade or more. If he wanted to say it more nicely, he might have said, "young lawyers are smart and well-intentioned. But there is a huge gap between what they are trained to do (issue spot like an appellate clerk), what they are paid to do (painstaking detailed information processing, but without much training or methodology to ensure quality or relevance, at a price far beyond what clients' employees are getting paid for similar and better managed work), and what we need them to do (focused, detailed, apprenticeship work--but a lot less of it--that supports and complements architectural solutions and processes at a reasonable price and so prepares them to be those architects)." Simply put, whereas medical and other professional schools generally train students in the context of the world they're about to enter, law schools have almost created an "anticontext," a world divorced from client reality.

Most of the FutureEd participants agreed with Paul, and started plotting to get him to deliver a wake-up call to their faculty gatherings.

Today I received an e-mail from Bloomberg Law (presumably tens of thousands of other clients did as well), offering me free legal research. I have been in three meetings in April alone with huge clients who are developing ways to "unbundle" part of their high-volume work to legal process outsourcers. So when it comes to much of the traditional mainstay of associate work, as Bruce Springsteen sang, "these jobs are going boys, and they ain't coming back." That's not to say there isn't useful work for associates--there is a ton of it. But it requires understanding and integrating with clients, focusing on what is, and not on what might be, and pricing that's comparable to what other talented 30-year olds get paid for equally complex and meaningful work like project managing, programming, or selling.

Can law schools get off the beach? The most insightful analysis of why they might not came in Clay Shirky's blog. "Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn't these societies just retool in less complex ways? The answer...is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn't because they don't want to, it's because they can't. In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler--the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change."

Shirky goes on to describe what media executives really mean when they say web users will have to start paying for content. "Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to...And we don't know how to do that."

So when law schools and law firms say, as they sometimes do, "clients will have to keep paying for expensive associates or else we will have to stop training lawyers in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to...and we don't know how to do that," point those law schools and law firms to Shirky.

In October, Future Ed Phase II will be held at Harvard. Many folks have been working for some time on different initiatives around curriculum reform. (My own company--aspiring as we do to solve problems and not merely yammer--is rolling out a program Friday that will enable law students to connect directly to clients through secure collaboration to do "internships," gaining exposure to real client work through which they can get mentored.) Notwithstanding the model that suggests that disruptive innovation comes from outside the existing leaders, I believe the elite law schools, particularly Harvard, will actually lead the change, because it is their responsibility to do so. Or as Shirky writes, "when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future."

Paul Lippe is the founder of Legal OnRamp. He can be reached at [email protected].

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The current law school system is "beached." It will continue to graduate folks who know how to read appellate briefs, but who do not know how to provide value to their law firm or, for that matter, to clients. This will have to be an OTJ learning experience. Who will pay for this education.

Not until law school attendance drops and schools determine they can make more money educating people who can then stay in the profession and earn a reasonable living will they move away from their arrogance of believing they are a "professional school," not a trade school. The debate of profession/trade is long over. Now, they need to "get real."

Not only do they promote impractical curriculum, they admit way too many students! It's not about the training; it's about the money.

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