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Philosophy Over Practice? Perspectives on Legal Education

Sam Bock

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the current state of legal education and how it can be improved upon, with perspectives from aspiring and practicing attorneys across many functions in the legal space. Stay tuned for the next part soon.

“The industry is changing.”

If you compiled a physical copy of every quote, article, book, or blog that makes that statement, you could climb the pile right to the moon. (Probably.)

We talk a lot about how the legal space is changing. The evolution of technology, the emergence of new pricing models, the creation of new business practices—these trends and more are contributing to a transformative time in our field.

But which comes first: the innovations or the innovators?

This is no chicken-or-egg question. Waves don’t start until a drop—in this case, a smart and savvy professional with the skills to influence her peers—hits still waters.

Law School 101: Is It Enough?

No matter their role, formal education is a critical component in what will lead attorneys to become changemakers.

On the other hand, the typical law school curriculum is rarely seen as keeping pace with this evolving field, let alone empowering graduates to surge ahead of the curve with innovative skills or ideas.

So what are today’s lawyer’s getting out of their JDs? And what do they need to find elsewhere?

“A few years ago, we surveyed law firm and corporate attorneys and asked them to tell us what they wish they’d learned in law school,” said Jamy J. Sullivan, JD, executive director at Robert Half Legal. “Some of their responses included: taking a business or math course; learning the economics of the business of running a law firm or client development; better time management; more technology; and mediation skills.”

The Robert Half study's observations rang true for many of the JD earners I spoke to in researching this article. After being asked what they wish they'd learned in law school, their perspectives formed a chorus of similar takeaways.

“First, I wish that I had learned project management skills,” shared Gabriel Teninbaum, a professor and legal technologist at Suffolk University Law School. “Second, I wish I had known how to leverage more tech tools. Automation has come a long way since I practiced, but even then it would have made me better and faster at my job.”

“I wish I had learned more business, emotional intelligence, and legal tech skills,” echoed Britney Macdonald, a 2016 graduate of Chicago Kent College of Law and consultant at Point B.

“I wish there had been a class that discussed new and potentially disruptive methodologies being utilized. For example, when I was in law school, e-discovery was just starting to become commonplace and amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were being made, yet it was rarely discussed,” noted Nicholas Grimm, director of legal technology at Special Counsel. “I think law schools do a good job of teaching black letter law and supporting analytical thinking, but in some cases, could better prepare students for the operational side of law.”

Ruth Hauswirth, special counsel and director of litigation and e-discovery services at Cooley LLP, shared yet another perspective: “I wish I had learned more of what to expect when I went out and started practicing. I was filled with theoretical knowledge because in law school they teach you how to think a certain way, but I had limited experience with what you do day to day as a lawyer. I often joke that I don’t remember anyone mentioning local court rules when I was in law school.”

How can that be? Ruth pointed out something that seems to get to the heart of the issue: many law schools focus on the intellectual skillset required to practice law and haven’t discovered the value of teaching the applied skills that will help new lawyers hit the ground running.

“Being critical thinkers and great writers is still absolutely necessary—none of that has changed—but the practical knowledge and how we apply it is different now in many ways because of technology. Technology affects the way we do our jobs in two ways,” Ruth explained. “First, it affects how we practice, as in how it can make us more efficient—for example, data analytics to make better decisions or software for case management.”

She went on: “Second, we need to have an understanding of how clients are using data—that means a general understanding of information infrastructure, how and where clients store data, how to ask for what we need. How are people communicating in modern corporations? The number of messaging applications and communication platforms keeps increasing. How are they using data in their business? How does that affect their work and my work for them in assessing legal risks and establishing best practices to mitigate risk?”

Soft Skills Aren’t the Main Problem

Naturally, it’s difficult for law schools to turn their students into masters on every possible skill they may require in the working world. On-the-job experience and personal pursuits are integral parts of anyone’s professional growth, especially when it comes to softer skills.

“I remember reading Crucial Conversations in law school and it was a defining moment for my emotional intelligence growth. You can really excel when you empathize with folks,” said Britney. “It’s a key tool to navigating hairy client situations and moving the ball forward to achieve a targeted outcome.”

On the tactical side, Nicholas offered another important area: “The project management skill set is an unexpected, yet necessary, talent in today’s law firm. Client intake and matter evaluation is now a form of art,” he said. “Attorneys must have the ability to identify scope, plan, budget, and execute in a short period of time.”

Asked what type of talent her team is expected to deliver when offering recruiting support to their clients, Jamy said: “Interpersonal skills, business acumen, tech proficiency, and team collaboration skills are in demand.”

But, she said, it isn’t primarily the fuzzy skills that are lacking in recent graduates.

“The skills gap that I most frequently hear about relates to the practice-readiness of recent law school graduates,” Jamy continued. “It can be challenging for newly minted attorneys to effectively transfer the legal and business skills, knowledge, and experience learned at school to the daily realities of practicing law.”

For these grads and experienced lawyers, success means bringing hands-on proficiencies as well as specialized knowledge to the table.

“Practice area experience tops the list of what employers look for when hiring attorneys,” Jamy explained. “It’s essential that law students start developing skills and professional experience long before they apply for their first job as a lawyer.”

Fortunately for Britney, she understood the importance of these skills while still in school. She said she’d advise other students accordingly: “I’m a big advocate of taking a couple business courses within your JD curriculum. There’s also value in taking an online Excel tutorial in financial planning or a lesson in understanding how to draw insights from data,” she suggested.

For her, even one class can have a big impact.

“In law school, I took a problem-solving course which featured real-world business and legal issues,” she explained. “It was incredibly valuable because I had a practice ground to learn how to develop frameworks to solve the issue at hand—it provided the equivalent of ‘on-the-job’ coaching before graduation.”

Nicholas also emphasized the importance of building that practical knowledge.

“Many JDs have no idea what it actually means to practice on a day-to-day basis. If I had known about some of the technologies coming down the pipeline, I think I would have been better prepared to transition into the work force when I graduated,” he said. “Learning ‘on the job’ is good, but if we are talking about preparing attorneys from day one, it is critical that they understand how technology is utilized in today’s law firm.”

How Two Law Schools are Making the Grade for e-Discovery Education

Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.