The Talent

June 22, 2009 2:31 PM

Welcome to the Future: Time for Law School 4.0

Posted by Paul Lippe

If I need some insight into the future of medicine, I might head over to Stanford Medical School. If I wanted to learn about likely directions in finance and hedge funds, I might visit Penn's Wharton. If I were looking to make investments in computing, I might arrange a tour of a lab at MIT. If I decided to learn something about where legal practice, law firms, and legal departments will be in 2014, where would I go? Not to law school.

Relative to other professional schools, law schools are extremely disengaged from professional practice-- they seek neither to understand nor to influence it. As I have said previously in this space, law has lagged behind the world of global competition--and technology-driven clients--over the last 15 years. It's now entered a whiplash period where it must catch up. If clients have to change 20 percent, then law firms must change 30-40 percent (see Jordan Furlong’s great post on how U.K. changes will migrate to the U.S.), and the "supply chain" to law firms (e.g., law schools and certain companies and service providers) will experience the most dramatic change.   

Over the past six months, I have participated in a number of symposia at law schools and have visited with eight deans, including David Van Zandt at Northwestern and Rick Matasar at New York Law School. How did we get here? In the simplest terms, we can identify three phases of legal education.

Phase I was the apprenticeship system, where folks "read" law under more senior lawyers. Some refer to this model as "Lincoln's way" because it produced great thinkers and advocates like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Justice John Marshall, and most of the signers of the Constitution. This 1:1 apprenticeship model gradually evolved into a trade school model, where practicing lawyers would supplement their meager income by lecturing on law at the local YMCA night law school.

Phase II, pioneered by Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard, created the professional school, and centered the curriculum around the case method and classroom discussion, which is the template for every law school in the country. The American Bar Association and later the Association of American Law Schools worked to eradicate the trade school model, ratcheting up admissions standards and driving the emergence of the faculty as a distinct profession.

Phase III reflects the last generation or so, where law schools have grown more distant from the profession, and the legal academy has come to define itself as primarily engaged in a scholarly pursuit (like, say, literature or history), as opposed to a professional pursuit, like, say, medicine or business.  

Some obvious problems with the Phase III model include:

--Students graduate from law school with a lot of debt but without client-marketable skills, so their primary option is to serve long apprenticeships in law firms, beginning with very rote work, which is less intellectually engaging than law school or judicial clerkships. While law students who get the higher-paying law firm jobs achieve good salaries much faster than medical students, their time to professional independence is longer. This is not because law is more complex or riskier than medicine, but because legal training is inferior.

--It's no surprise that law graduates don't acquire client-marketable skills, since so many law faculty don't care much about the practice of law. Even in 1981, when I went to law school, the faculty generally held law firms in low regard, and clients were presumed unethical without the constant guidance of lawyers  (when I spoke to a law school dean the other day, she immediately equated client with "Enron"). It's nuts for law school to be primarily about understanding appellate decision making and not at all about understanding clients.

--Law school is weak on empiricism--unlike, for example, medical school, which is moving in the direction of being ever more evidence-based. Almost every argument in law school is a hypothetical grounded in abstraction and unproved in experience.

If law schools aren't figuring out the future, who is? Or is the future of law practice not important?  If law schools don't imagine a future any different from the present, is it any wonder many lawyers embrace the fallacy of an unchanging and unchangeable profession?

As I have suggested previously, general counsel are pushing for big discounts for junior associate time, and law firms are deleveraging, which means straight-from-law-school-hiring is going to drop for at least three years and probably forever (tell me again why we're flying to Duke Law School to interview so we'll have an inexperienced lawyer for a project in 2013 and who, if everyone is really lucky, may become eligible for partnership in 2022?). Law schools will have to produce fully functioning lawyers who can quickly become economically viable--not just proto appellate clerks.

Let me suggest some likely elements of change (some of which already are in play at Northwestern and elsewhere):

--An accelerated curriculum, with no more than a year of case method, a year of clinical, and then a year of externship with subject area focus, along the lines of medical school.

--More practice orientation in teaching, with far more adjunct faculty who are active practitioners (a random e-mail I received yesterday said, "One of the reasons I chose Northwestern for law school is I believe in the type of changes that Dean Van Zandt is trying to make. My favorite instructors were not academics but adjuncts who were successful practicing attorneys.")

--Better use of technology (both connectivity, like video or Web conferencing, and Web 2.0 social networks) to connect schools and practitioners and clients. Faculty (rightly) hate the notion of students tweeting each other in the classroom, but they can easily rely on professional networking services to connect to actual practitioners who are dealing with the issues discussed in class. In a networked world, the ability to get someone who knows the answer to help you is a far more valuable skill than the ability to hypothesize your own answer.

--A much more empirical approach to practice, forcing much deeper inquiry, rather than just trotting out hypotheticals and issue-spotting--e.g., if choosing AAA arbitration is the right dispute resolution clause, do we know that a higher percentage of deals with no arbitration clause ended in a contentious dispute?

--A move back to mission-centered management. In a recent meeting with law school deans, I asked, "If you decided the purpose of law school was to maximize the comfort and income of the faculty, what would you do differently?" The answer: "Nothing." When my wife's grandfather was a law school dean, it was understood that the law school was there to serve society, the profession, and students--not vice versa.

--A lifetime (or at least ten years) of orientation for skills development for students/alums. While law schools need to figure out how to get graduates out the door faster and for less money, they also are the logical source (although realistically, today, not the most fully competent source) of skills (as well as reputation and network) development for lawyers to become fully functional, especially as firms' appetite for subsidizing training will decline. Medical schools and business schools make a ton of money at continuing/executive education, so this is a great opportunity to enrich the faculty and student experience, generate an income stream, and engender more alumni loyalty.

Call it law school 4.0.

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

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Interesting, I would say we have about the same problems in Sweden (in progress of writing an article about it myself). It makes me wonder mabye it's the subject of law itself that makes it impossible to teach students what they really need in their professional life.

Lippe is largely uninformed about the modern American law school. His history is simpleminded and his descriptions of what goes on are laughable. Most of his examples were out of date in the sixties. The legitimate criticisms of law schools, and there many, run almost directly counter to the ones he lists. Harry Edwards wrote the "too theoretical - not practical" critique in more detail and with greater insight in the nineteen eighties and a lot has happened since then. Lippe's analysis has all of the sophistication of an orientation week writing assignment asking first year students to evaluate legal education. In fact, you can find better stuff on college student blogs like AutoAdmit and As an old grade school teacher used to say, "No more Lippe."

Paul, I think the medical parallels are absolutely correct. Why not follow it more completely and propose more radical changes to the industry fabric that have law school graduates compete for internships and residencies? The best and brightest apply to the best firms/programs and work their butts off learning the practice/specialty areas and business of law for 3+ years at $60k, and then are in a position to more effectively practice and deserve the higher salaries after that? Don't you think they will know more after that 3 years and that firms would be willing to pay an appropriate rate for that accumulated knowledge vs. the current model? Maybe it does not apply 100% across the board, but could work for the top 200 or so firms that want the best talent over the long-term, and it may help adjust the supply side of the equation by weeding-out the chaff.

Right on point. Should be required reading for law school faculty.

Good thinking points, but medical school analogy does not quite work -- we don't have cadavers to use for instruction. And there is more to practicing law than Big Law, which employs a fairly small percentage of graduates. But still a thoughtful piece.

As a relatively recent graduate of law school, I wholeheartedly agree with the majority of your theories but think that it's up to the student to take advantage of the law school and seek those avenues that allow them to get "real" experience. Externships, clinics, etc. are a fantastic opportunity to get that type of experience and offered me an advantage as I entered the legal world. That said, law school should be two years rather than three, cheaper, require two years of residency, and law firms should pay new associates (partners too) less and demand less hours.

We need to bring nobility and humanity back to the profession.

As an attorney and long-time legal search professional, I found the article you wrote about law schools right on point! I too traveled around the country this year lecturing at various law schools on the economies of job placement, and I found myself dumbfounded by the questions I received from faculty during the Q&A sessions.
The students were in touch with the realities of law firm placement, though often befuddled by the issue of getting a foot in the door, but they understood the reality of inexperience and many expressed concern about the lack of “client training”. I have often felt that customer service and satisfaction is an all too elusive concept for many attorneys. I did not learn this until I practiced inhouse!
Faculty, including most alarmingly some of the career services folks, were so out of touch with the reality of what new lawyers were facing in the job market. Though they knew the stats, they seemed to believe the old law school model could continue to pump out lawyers who would weather this “brief” storm. The questions I fielded from this group were more often than not about their “perceived” demise of pro bono, the courses students should take to improve law firm hires and summer positions and clerkships that would enhance and strengthen a resume.
Several times, at the conclusion of sessions, I wished I had a course just for this professional group…Law School Revisited!

As a rising 2L, the article and comments give me a perspective on class selection moving forward.

The question I still have is where is the happy medium? If you want to focus on a particular area of law, but your school may not offer the clinical training in that area, do you go for the knowledge now, or go for the skills training and then hope you can develop the knowledge along the way in actual practice?

Why mandate 3 years of law school. Two is enough. Let market decide how to train.

Separately, require some quantitative training so lawyers overcome their innumeracy.

I just love Paul Lippe.

How about an Americorps for law students? Some time spent assisting at legal services, or helping pro per clients, in exchange for debt forgiveness. Get some practical experience helping people who really need the help, which coincidentally helps the courts, and the struggling legal services people, and come away with less debt and marketable skills. This would be win-win-win for the profession, the new lawyer, and the public.

I agree with the tone of your article, but maybe not with every example as others have stated.

I am a rising 2L and am mortified by the lack of technology in use at my school. I understand that a student has to "spot the issue" and that is learned by redundancy. But to limit a student to a book in a wired world is counter productive and counter intuitive in so many respects.

The Rank and file of the older lawyers (some of which commented here) are old school and are ready to pound out the idea that the old way is the best way simply because its the only way they know -OR- giving credit to any new generation of learning might create personal inferiority to the way "they" learned the law. (Those young whipper snappers!)

Now that I have pissed off some of those people, I will leave with this notion: like so many other professions, the Law School experience needs to change in so many ways... unfortunately the rank and file will continue to be the leadership of our hallowed halls for some time. SO, until there is an evolution of a generation of law school deans, I don't expect things to be a hell of lot different in the years to come. Sad too. One day, maybe all of my professors will allow laptops in class.

And just for fun of it... "SOCRATIC" DOES NOT MEAN DRILL INSTRUCTOR or TO BELITTLE. How the socratic method has evolved from "a conversation walking down a garden path" to what we have today - I will never know... -ja

U of ABC in the mid 80s had a dynamic clinical practice program. Most of us interested were middle-third of the class. The upper third was above practice and the lower third below

I was quite surprised Mr. Lippe did not mention Washington and Lee University School of Law, which is completely revamping its third-year curriculum to improve its practical value in many of the ways he suggests. See the following links:

The reforms taking place at Washington and Lee have been highly controversial and resulted in a ratings plunge, which is probably why schools like Northwestern and NYU will never implement such drastic changes.


Just saw your article and enjoyed it immensely. I would add that another area to consider is the area of business development. Finding and developing new clients and identifying new matters within existing clients is every firm's life’s blood. We believe business development is a critical skill especially for those newly minted and Associates if they intend to build their practice.

Our firm has trained lawyers of every level in business development and there has been no dearth of positive comments about its importance. No doubt as competition for a client's legal spend becomes more intense lawyers that understand the needs of existing and potential clients will fare far better.

Change is coming, and perhaps more rapidly than one might think. The AALS now holds national meetings on transactional training, attempting to catch up with the advances already made in trial practice training, where NITA showed the way. These programs are well attended. Emory, where I teach, and a few other schools have instituted centers for transactional law training. We've started a biennial conference on transactional law training, with representatives of a majority of law schools represented. We've hired Tina Stark, a noted trainer of young lawyers at BigLaw, as our Director, and have introduced courses in Contract Drafting and Deal Skills (due diligence, opinion letters, indemnity agreements, etc.). Some of our other courses have grown more self-consciously transactional as well. Some of our most advanced teaching in these areas is done by skilled practitioners. We're trying to be responsive to what we hear from lawyers about the perceived deficiencies of most of legal education.

William Carney, Emory Law School

I find it incredibly ironic that the criticism here is largely directed at the "top" law schools' curriculum. At Pierce Law, we have been implimenting the changes suggested for a very long time. Even going so far as implimenting a one year law school, two year apprenticeship program in New Hampshire enabling "graduates" to be admitted to the bar after completion.

I have to agree with much of Lippe’s indictment, at least as it applies to the more traditional law schools in the upper stratosphere of legal education---the air can be very thin among the elite. Innovation, however, often takes place in the moist earth, at many smaller law schools such as Pierce, Washington and Lee, and in my own workplace, Touro Law Center where we have an innovative court observation program in the state and federal courts across the street, required practice modules attached to substantive courses, extensive clinical programs and externships, and a Public Advocacy Center under the roof of the law school where our students can meet their pro bono requirements volunteering with one of 16 public service agencies. So my only complaint about Lippe’s article was the scope of his complaint---he should consider lowering his eyes to see what interesting flora are coming up from the ground.

Louise Harmon
Touro Law Center

Mr. Henderson is correct. The internet has really helped to get the word out that law school at sticker price is a disasterous financial decision for most law students. Sure, the chosen few will get those great career track jobs in Biglaw, or the Justice Department. The rest are fighting over scraps.

In effect, most law professors have found a very nice six figure harbour in the massive storm, while they implore their students to steam out into the ocean at full speed in a rickety old boat with life jackets and lifeboats for only 20% of the passengers.

While I believe law schools need to change, particularly in the way they train transactional lawyers, for a variety of reasons, I disagree with the nature of the changes suggested in the article. I just posted my thoughts on the subject in a draft of my remarks from the recent AALS mid-year meeting on Business Associations ("What Law Schools Should Teach Future Transactional Lawyers: Perspectives from Practice”). It’s available at

I have to say, I don't find the medical school analogy persuasive. Among other things (and in addition to what some of the other commentators have noted), to get into medical school, a student has to have already taken a significant number of substantive courses. For example, most medical schools require applicants to have completed at least one full year of each of Biology and Physics and two full years of Chemistry (including Organic Chemistry), together with associated lab work. In law school, many students are, in effect, starting from scratch, with no prior legal or business training or experience. As a result, more substantive training is necessary, leaving less time for practical training. In addition, those holding medical school up as a model of hands-on practical training often skip over the fact that medical school is four years, the first two of which are devoted to teaching substantive courses.

I graduated from law school twenty years ago, when the internet was in its infancy. After graduation, I spoke to the Dean and several professors I knew and tried to convince them that our law school (a top tier school) needed more legal practice courses, especially in the areas of emerging technology and intellectual property. We had one meeting, where we discussed the problem and made recommendations. Nothing happened.

Several years later, my law school posted an advertisement for a contracts associate professor (non-tenured). I sent my resume and a cover letter, since by then I was working as a Senior Counsel in publicly-traded, international technology companies in Silicon Valley, and I thought that I could create a curriculum where the students could learn how to dissect various types of licenses and technology contracts, and learn the importance and use of "boilerplate" provisions. I did not even receive an acknowledgment to my application from my old law school.

It is extremely sad that we are still having this discussion in 2009. While there are now some technology-related courses in law school, they appear to be based on the old theoretical, [un]Socratic method of teaching, rather than practical everyday legal skills.

In today's job climate, there is also another great change taking place - many companies are hiring young, 2 to 6 years attorneys (because they are cheap) and "laying off" 18 years+ experienced veterans. At a time when the regulatory climate worldwide is increasingly more complex, and the penalties for non-compliance are draconian, how will these "newbie" lawyers be able to provide sound legal advice to their corporate clients? Since there are now so few experienced lawyers in-house, there is no one for them to learn from or consult with, which mentoring was something I used to do when I was in-house.

In addition to the above, we are a profession under siege, as more and more non-lawyers are being hired by corporations as "contract administrators" or "specialists" whose duty is to draft, revise and negotiate NDAs, technology licenses, and other such contracts; many clients are outsourcing legal research to countries such as India; and there are also many non-lawyers (such as realtors) who "interpret" the real estate contracts for their clients - this happened to me personally, the realtor was not aware I am a lawyer. Yet, the Bar Associations in the US are not doing anything to halt the unathorized practice of law, they would rather stop practicing attorneys from moving to another state by requiring such lawyers to pass the bar exam (in keeping with your medical school comparison, once you are a doctor, you no longer have to keep taking your initial qualifying exams in order to practice medicine if you move to another state - you just need to apply for hospital privileges). No other profession (including engineers, CPAs, and other state-licensed professionals) are required to re-take their initial qualifying exams, when they move, only lawyers.

All these issues have created a "perfect storm" environment for the legal profession - I believe that if we are to survive as a profession, we need to make immediate changes to address these issues. However, I do not believe the Bar Associations or the law schools are motivated to act in time to save our profession. I am no longer interested in practicing law, and have discouraged my children from following in my footsteps. I also know many senior lawyers feel the same, and are retiring in record numbers.

There's a core issue though that's missed here-- are lawyers specialists, and should they be? Your analogy to the medical profession is interesting, but in medicine, where students do specialize, the profession is finding too few people go into family medicine and everyone wants to be a dermatologist (better lifestyle, better pay).

I agree 100% with the recommendation that law schools should hire more adjunct professors and fewer non-practicing academics.

Without exception, adjunct professors gave the best, most efficient, most relevant classes I took during my 3 years of law school. Academic professors, on the other hand, were often atrocious - and the less experience they had in practice, the worse they were.

If you want to spend your life writing articles about Law and Bananas, go get a PHD in Sociology or some other nonsense, and don't waste my tuition dollars pretending to teach Contracts.

Why should the entire responsibility for a graduate's employability be placed on law schools? Are law firm/office hiring practices and the economy not part of this picture? And while students getting jobs is of course crucial, not EVERYthing a law school does should be designed to fit in to some imagined law firm or office. Even practitioners who work in the so-called "real world" will have vastly different experiences of firm requirements and practice. There is no one-size-fits-all formula to prepare students for work. There is room for many different types of course offerings and teachers in law school; full access to all and balance is what's required.

Rising 3L at a top law school here. I agree that law school is devoid of practical training and major changes should take place to rectify that. While clinics, internships, and externships are great, they are far from sufficient and more needs to be done.

The bottom line is that if law schools were judged by the efficacy in which they train lawyers most law school faculty members and administrators would be fired. However, these law profs and law school administrators will do anything to keep their little ivory tower gravy train running. I imagine we're going to see a lot of resistance and stalling if students and the practicing bar start complaining more loudly than usual.

As for W&L's third year program, it would be a lot better if it weren't "simulated".

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The problem is the number of lawyers, not the training. Do we really need 1 lawyer for every 270 people? I love the medical analogy, lets reduce the number of Lawyers by 66% so it fits the MDs/population ratio.

Half the number of ABA accredited schools and the problem will solve itself. The issues are supply and demand and the inaction of attorney professional organizations such as the ABA.

Fact is, why pay for an inexperienced attorney when there is a plethera of experienced attorneys out of work. The market will self-correct, but not before a significant amount of JDs start going bankrupt and government intervention is called upon. Simply put, the ABA, which certifies law schools and has a compelling incentive to continue to do so, and law schools have only ONE motivating factor: the bottom line. Right now students are continuing to pay the inflated costs and law schools are continuing to increase their graduating classes.

Some really good points there! I would totally agree, the problem with advanced learing like that is being able to prepare students for a paradigm shift once they leave education. I work in marketing and the information students learn in their first year is often useless by the time they graduate, if they fail to find employment in the first six months/year they are often left behind. Institutions need to be able to keep up with progress and

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