A few days after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the loss of another 2,600 legal jobs in June, the Wall Street Journal ran “Law Schools Get Practical.” Some schools are changing curriculum to develop skills that real lawyers need; that makes sense. But some hope that more big law positions for graduates will result; that is magical thinking.

Reconsidering legal education is important. The first year teaches students to think like lawyers; the second year covers important substantive areas. To deal with the universally maligned third year, Stanford is considering a clinical course requirement involving 40-hour plus weeks of actual case work, while Washington and Lee University of Law School replaced lectures and seminars with “case-based simulations run by practicing lawyers.”

Meanwhile, Harvard has updated its curriculum significantly in recent years. Indiana University Maurer School of Law teaches “project management” and “emotional intelligence.” NYU offers courses in “negotiation” and “client counseling.” Some innovations are more valuable than others, but no one should think that improved job prospects will result.

The article quoted a recruiter at McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP who said that clients weren’t willing to pay for new lawyer training. Likewise, Xerox’s general counsel described his company’s policy of not paying for first-year associates. The implication is that if new graduates received more practical training in school, clients would pay for them and hiring would increase. Not a chance.

First, new associates in large firms don’t need the practical skills that most law schools are promoting. If there were courses on “maximizing billable hours,” “withstanding unreasonable partner demands,” or “surviving a culture of attrition where fewer than ten percent of new associates will become equity partners,” that would be one thing. But document review, due diligence undertakings, and other mundane tasks that consume most big law associates’ early years don’t require much special training. Some don’t even require a law degree. Xerox — and many other companies sharing its dim view of first-year associate value — won’t start paying for young attorneys just because they have taken the new courses.

Second, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have moved steadily upward over the last decade — to over $1.3 million in 2010. If those firms are already “suffering” from client resistance to paying for new associates, partners nevertheless seem to be thriving financially.

Finally, when asked whether current law school innovations will help students land jobs, Timothy Lloyd, chair of Hogan Lovells recruiting committee, told the Journal:

“It could enhance the reputation of the law school…as places that will produce lawyers who have practical skills. As to the particular student when I’m interviewing them? It doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Bingo. As a big law interviewer myself, I looked for intelligence, personality, and potential. Specific courses didn’t matter. Assessing candidates was and is subjective but, to adapt Justice Stewart’s pornography test, I usually knew a good one when I saw one.

Schools should expand clinical programs, but not because such student credentials matter to large firm recruiters. They don’t. However, those who don’t get big law jobs really need practical lawyering skills. Do it for them — the vast majority of today’s 50,000 annual graduates.

Schools should modernize curriculum, but not to become business school knockoffs for big law. That’s a mistake.

Even more urgently, schools should educate prospective attorneys more fully about the big law path — from the challenge of getting a job to the unforgiving billable hours culture to the elusive brass ring of equity partnership. (See, e.g., The Partnership)

That would be real reform, but at most place it won’t happen. Yale’s cautionary memo about the real meaning of 2,000 billable hours a year and Stanford’s “Alternatives to Big Law” series that compliments its outstanding student loan forgiveness program are hopeful beginnings. But such candor runs counter to the enticing big firm starting salaries that pervade law school websites aimed at the next generation of would-be lawyers. After all, their student loans pay the bills.

5 thoughts on “PRACTICAL SKILLS

  1. Finding a position with a law firm and certainly generating business thereafter requires at least some skill in sales. I’m not saying that you need to be glib or aWilly Loman clone with a smile on your lips and a shine on your shoes, but rather the real essence of sales, which is to be a good listener. It wouldn’t hurt a bit to have a discussion about techniques of rainmaking and perhaps some lectures and simulations on making a legal sale, while you’re in law school. I think many students would be surprised to find there’s really very little difference between the investigatory skills and questioning of a good lawyer, and using those same techniques to uncover and bring in new business. There’s certainly a perception difference, however, which is just silly.

  2. Steve,
    Good stuff, as usual. I agree with Ron about the sales component.

    My frustration is that this necessary debate about law schools’ shortcomings completely ignores what I call the business of law. As you point out, most of the 50,000 graduates won’t be drawing 6-figure BigLaw salaries, but rather will be in smaller firms or solo. Under such circumstances, acting as if law isn’t a business is limiting, bordering on suicidal.

    I agree with you that there’s little hope for BigLaw Factory lawyers to decrease their misery index. That model is designed to consume lawyers, not support them.

    But the rest, as Daniel Pink shows in “Drive,” are anthropologically hard-wired to pursue autonomy, mastery and purpose. Today’s reality is that, to have a career that’s professionally stimulating, economically rewarding and personally satisfying, SmallLaw lawyers have to be able to attract and keep the kind of clients whose circumstances match their professional interests, practice style and economic needs. To do that, they have to demonstrate relevance to those clients’ worlds. Coming out of law school completely ignorant of what it means to attract clients and operate a business assures those graduates of a long, slow road to acceptance by the clients to which they most aspire.

    I’ll argue that any service provider must scale The Impact Ladder. The lowest, predicate rung is Relevance, which earns one the attention of those for whom one is relevant. Once I see that you “get” my world, I might give you a chance to move up to the next rung, Usefulness. If the useful thing you do for me produces meaningful business impact, your status will increase to Valuable. If you’re consistently Relevant, Useful and Valuable for a long time, you’ll ascend to Indispensable, i.e., I’ll rarely make a move without consulting your wisdom first. That’s the status that lawyers I trained for 20 years told me they all wanted.

    The beginning is Relevance. Sadly, few law school grads are relevant to anything but theory, test-taking and interviewing for jobs. Maybe law schools should require a minimum of one year working at a real-world job as a condition of acceptance.


  3. I read this post in July, and I find myself coming back to it again and again. Whether it is reading the Wall Street Journal, talking to law students about job prospects, or even engaging in some questionable reading on Above the Law, I always find myself reminded of what you wrote here.

    I think that your idea about how schools should better prepare students for their future as firm lawyers, and what exactly that entails, should begin before students take their first class. More so, I feel that schools should take an even bigger step and hold a financial literacy seminar or workshop for potential first year law students where they show them exactly what it means to pay so much debt. After all, even if a student knows what it is to work at a firm, nothing currently prevents that same student for thinking that they can always leave if they don’t like it – understanding over $200,000 in debt and the time it takes to repay is beyond most students.

    Thanks for a great read that has led to a lot of reflection over the past months.

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