Law Schools and Law Firms: Change is Coming

by Vault Education Editors | April 12, 2010

  • My Vault

At a law school conference this weekend, Future Ed: New Business Models for U.S. and Global Legal Education hosted by New York Law School and Harvard Law School, the big debate was making law school graduates more employable.

After major layoffs across the board at top law firms over the past two years, many worry (rightly) that law students are in trouble jobs-wise. Moreover, as LSAT numbers confirm, more people are turning to law school to ride out the recession, which will lead to even more lawyers in the job-scarce marketplace. In light of this dilemma, the Future Ed conference asked: Is there something law schools can do to help these wannabe lawyers get jobs after graduation? Should law schools spend more time teaching students the hard skills they'll need in the real world?

Law students waiting for their interviewEven at top schools, practice skills often take a back seat; and law firms have to spend a lot of time and money training first-year associates. In a Vault 2008 survey, hiring partners rated law schools based on the employability of their recent graduates. Though they all lauded grads from top schools for their analytical skills, hiring partners' remarks were also peppered with complaints about the lack of hard skills--"Competitive, good writers, good thinkers, but need more practical training rather than just studying theory;" "Produces smart people, but don't know how to do basic legal research;" "Weakness is lack of exposure to practical experience;" "Wicked smart, but don't want to get their hands dirty in day-to-day litigation tasks;" and "Law school education is too theoretical--would like to see lawyers with more practical experience and application of the law." It's clear that law firms are calling for more practical education in law schools.

At the Future Ed conference, panelists were more specific about what kind of practical skills they'd like to see law schools teach. From National Law Journal: For example, Paul Lippe, CEO of Legal OnRamp, called for more pedagogical focus on dealing with clients. Said Paul Beach, associate general counsel for United Technologies Corp., law schools need to teach to communicate more effectively and learn more about financial issues.

Panelist Joseph Altonji, a consultant at Hldegrant Bakern Robbins, argued that the law firms have been complicit in allowing law schools to stress theory over practice in their associate training structure (from AmLaw Daily). And this isn't a new trend. For over 40 years, BigLaw has hired their associate classes on the same metric, which stresses law school prestige, GPAs and journal membership. But, as Vault's Anu Rao points out, this metric doesn't lead to hiring the best lawyers:

"Law is a service industry. While difficult to define and complicated to test, soft skills are crucial. Transcripts can't predict who will have a gift for building relations, upon which a firm's future depends. You can teach someone to draft a contract, but can you teach them to network? to listen attentively and respectfully disagree? to greet the receptionist at a client-site? Barring those notorious anti-social partners, who achieved career success in large part by stamping out any evidence of humanity, in the 'real' world of law, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence count."

So how should BigLaw change its recruiting structure to hire the best associates? And how can law schools help prepare future JDs for practice? Altonji suggests that law schools offer more specialized programs, "because we need different kinds of practitioners." To find these specialized candidates and other future firm partners, Rao suggests BigLaw look to the banking and consulting recruiting style:

"In the course of the [banking and consulting] hiring process, applicants can expect case studies, group clinics, mini-projects, short presentations and peer reviews. The obvious goal is to immerse applicants in a simulacrum of what their real work would be, while showcasing leadership skills, project management capabilities, ability to work within time constraints, and networking ability."

Neither question (of law school education or law firm recruiting) will be answered soon, though some schools are already implementing more practical, action-based courses. There are two upcoming conferences much like Future Ed coming up--one at Harvard Law School in October 2010 and the other at New York Law School in April 2011--which will give law school deans and BigLaw hiring partners time to marinate before returning to the panel. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? How can law schools step up?

Filed Under: Education

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