The Future of Us

Law School GraduationA few weeks ago, I attended a Chicago Bar Association program, “The Future of the Profession: How the Legal Profession Must Embrace Working Differently, Changing the Law Firm Model, and Innovation.”  It was the first in a series of events on the future of the legal profession put on by the CBA Young Lawyers’ Section this bar year.

The program started with Deborah Epstein Henry, author of Law and Reorder.  She opened with the numbers.  And the numbers are stark: 38% decline in law school applications between 2010 and 2012; lowest number of students matriculating since 1977; 55% of graduating law students with full-time legal employment, and an average private law school debt of $125,000.

However, despite the negativity (or reality, if you prefer), Ms. Henry made sure to mention that the future of law looked less bleak than her statistics indicate. Secondment firmsvirtual law firms, and legal processing organizations are only a handful of examples of future law. These new legal delivery methods provide much needed training, flexibility and efficiency for young attorneys.  And traditional law firms are taking note.  She spoke of one firm’s redesigned office space, moving away from Baby Boomer corner offices to Millennial communal spaces (think of all those kids on their laptops at Starbucks).  She even gave a shout-out to the Drinker Biddle deferment program where associates receive 6 months of law firm training on a reduced salary.

So how can a young lawyer take advantage of this future law?  This is where the panelists came in: Peter Hsieh, General Counsel of Knowles Electronics, Daniel Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern Law, and Jesse Ruiz, partner at Drinker Biddle.  Their advice?  The game may have changed, but the rules have not.

Young lawyers need to join bar associations, focus their specializations, and seek mentoring relationships.  Above all, they need to add value to their organizations, especially in a market where their value is in question.  In a constantly changing legal profession, only by adding value can a young attorney’s true ability come to the surface.

Which is good.  But in my opinion, it isn’t enough.  It seems to me that we keep chipping away at the edges of a young lawyer problem that’s much larger than secondments and deferments.  The problem is that young lawyers are leaving law schools with too much debt and too little skill to show for it.  And while five years ago, clients were fine paying the millions of dollars it would take to train these young associates, they are now far less willing to do so.  And that’s just for those who can find jobs.  There are vast numbers of new graduates who are entering the workforce with a law license but with little knowledge of how to use it.

It’s a soapbox that every legal blogger has stood on this year.  But at the event, it was nice to see a blogger with the ability to make the changes declare that the system is broken and needs fixing – Northwestern Law dean, and intrepid blogging star, Daniel Rodriguez.

Dean Rodriguez, in his typically honest fashion, laid out the case for transforming legal education.  He listed the three core problems: the high cost of legal education and debt, the dearth of legal jobs, and the precipitous decline of the legal market.  He argued that law schools have a “collective obligation” to look at these problems.  Unfortunately, he added, what law schools now share is a collective attitude that the best of them will survive the new legal climate.

When asked, Dean Rodriguez refused to blame a single entity for the high costs of law school.  The blame, he said, is shared, – the ABA, faculty, U.S. News, law firms that read U.S.News.  All these factors work together to create a very similar and very expensive legal training program.  And accelerated JD programs and clinical programs, while helpful, just aren’t cutting the cost like everyone thinks they should.

Kudos to the Dean for being frank about the issues facing academia.  Law schools need to be change agents for the future of law.  But, there are opposing forces piled up against them.  The recent brouhaha over law review is a great insight into why.  I’ll save that discussion for the next post.

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