The New Normal Legal Profession

New Normal Legal ProfessionA little less than a month ago, the President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners wrote this memorandum to law school deans. While the memorandum has been out a while, it was only in the last week when the Dean of Brooklyn Law School responded angrily to Ms. Moser’s explanation that “less able” law students had led to lower bar passage rates, that the blogosphere and the national media really picked up on the issue. Are law students less able than before? Are law schools admitting students with lower LSAT and GPA scores? Are lawyers the next frontier in the “dumbing down of America”? Professors and bloggers and reporters went back and forth on this issue. Law schools failed. Bar examiners failed. Examsoft failed. BarBri failed. And on and on and on because no one likes to argue points to death more than lawyers.

So let’s be honest. Between July 2013 and July 2014, bar exam passage rates dropped in the majority of states including by 5 points here in Illinois. And the idea of the “less able” law student is something that law school observers have been saying for the past several years. As costs increase and applicants decrease, it doesn’t take any type of advanced math degree to determine that the only way to keep revenue the same among an ever-dwindling supply of qualified students, is to dip deeper into the applicant pool and offer admissions spots to students less qualified than those ten years ago. As Professor Derek Muller of Pepperdine writes on Excess of Democracy.

There’s no question there was a decline in the law school applicant profile from the Class of 2013 to the Class of 2014. The dispute that [we] have had is whether the decline in bar passage rates should have been as stark. But going forward, the Class of 2015, and 2016, and likely 2017, and probably 2018, will each be incrementally worse profiles still.”

Everyone knows that the legal profession is facing a host of problems. Bar examiners are only the latest victims in a blame game which up to this point has included law firms, law schools, law deans, career services, admissions officers, managing partners, private lenders, state Supreme Courts, the LSAC, the federal government, and every lawyer between the ages of 22 and 80.

Which is why it was gratifying to attend a conference where the focus wasn’t on finger pointing, blame shifting and who did what to whom, but rather on collaboration, alliance building and frank, civil discussion.

Ohio Prepares for the Future Legal Profession

On Friday November 14, the Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Professionalism held its 3rd Annual Student-to-Lawyer Symposium titled “Preparing the Leaders of Tomorrow’s Changing Legal Profession” in Columbus, Ohio. The program speakers included law faculty, law deans, and young lawyers discussing what the future of both law schools and the profession at large holds for our next crop of law students, many of whom were in attendance.

I will admit that I attended the conference with some trepidation. As a Michigan Wolverine married to a Michigan Wolverine, I assumed Columbus bore a strong relation to a Hunger Games arena where angry Buckeyes chased around terrified Michiganders with pitchforks. I’m glad to say that my fears weren’t entirely realized. Not only did I manage to escape intact, but I left with a deep appreciation for the hard work it takes to assemble attorneys and professionals for a single program in a state as diverse as Ohio. With 6 major cities, 9 law schools and a state that extends from West Virginia to the Great Lakes, the Ohio Bar is widespread yet close-knit and dedicated to working together to achieve its goals. That admirable ideal was what Friday’s conference was all about.

The program opened with Michael Robinson, Chair of the Ohio Commission on Professionalism, reflecting on the changes to the legal profession over the past six years and how every group, law firms, law schools and bar associations, needs to prove their relevance in this “new normal”. That phrase, the “new normal” was repeated over and over again throughout the day. And as Michael Robinson said, the only way to successfully approach the new normal is not to focus on who did what or who caused what, but rather on working together to find solutions to the problems we all face as a profession.

That’s what the Symposium spent the remainder of the day working toward. One of the speakers, Professor Stephen Lazarus of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law offered both good news and bad news about the new normal. The bad news: nothing is normal. From 45,000 new jobs at the peak of the economy to 23,000 projected today, starting salaries are lower and student debt is higher. The good news though? We are all here together and anything is possible. There are more solo and small firm practitioners. There are digital natives living in the millennial generation. And for the first time in years, there are far greater connections between law schools and legal practitioners. We are living in interesting times, he said, and that can be a very good thing.

Those digital natives were in full view for one other panel: the “new normal” in law practice. The panel featured a group of young lawyers who had started or were working at start-up companies focused on delivering innovative legal solutions to the public. The panelists encouraged law schools to develop more courses on entrepreneurial awareness and financial acumen, and consider more ways to give third-year students real world practice experience.

The final capper on the day was my small round table discussion with a group of alumni from the University of Toledo College of Law. Facilitated by Heather Karns, Assistant Dean of Career Services, the various alumni in my small group created a realizable action plan for improving the legal profession. One of the best ideas was having a weekly session at the Toledo Bar Association where young lawyers could meet with older attorneys and ask for their advice on cases that the young lawyers are working on. Everyone in the group listed their contacts, explained how they would get the sessions started (within the privilege parameters), and promised a check-in in a few weeks to ensure the ball was rolling. And it didn’t require 300 blog posts about who was to blame to get it off the ground.

Congratulations to Lori Keating, the Secretary for the Ohio Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, for putting together a genuinely interesting and very productive symposium. I look forward to seeing how the Ohio law schools and bar associations implement the many ideas that were discussed Friday afternoon. Hopefully the result will be that collaboration, not blame, becomes the true legacy of our “new normal” legal profession.

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