There seems to be one thing that most, if not all, lawyers can agree on: the legal field is broken, from education to practice. While the legal workplace is plagued by its own set of challenges and problems that desperately need reform, many of those problems originate in law schools and can be rectified (at least, partially) by how law schools train their students and the opportunities they provide. The curriculum is starting to see some necessary reforms, but, unsurprisingly, law schools have still yet to catch up to the cultural, technological, social, and economic changes in society. As a result, they’re still churning out lawyers of yesterday instead of tomorrow.
After going through three years of law school and talking to many law students and lawyers from around the country (and world), I have several ideas, thoughts, and changes that law schools can implement to bolster the image of the legal profession, to improve the law school experience, to challenge the status quo, to create better lawyers, and to prepare lawyers for a rapidly changing marketplace with emerging technologies.
1. Understand the importance and need for diversity, equity, and inclusion. We need diversity of thought, of perspectives, of backgrounds, and of experiences from not only the students, but also the faculty and professors. We need classes that encourage discussion and open dialogues of controversial subjects such as police brutality, systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, policing, and mass incarceration. You can’t include a race and diversity class and gloss over the sensitive topics just because they’re uncomfortable. They’re necessary to shift the narrative on race, law, and inequality and to shed light on the social, economic, and political forces that exacerbate these injustices. These kinds of classes should be required as part of the 1L curriculum and should not be taken as a C/NC class. That doesn’t exactly scream commitment to diversity; it just lets you check off a box. In many law schools, women comprise more than 50% of the student body (but the number significantly dwindles when talking about women in leadership), but ethnic minorities (in the student body and faculty) are still sorely underrepresented — this speaks to yet another problem in the legal field: access (scholarships, outreach, pipeline, mentors, etc.).
2. Offer study abroad options. Over the last several decades, with the rise of specialization, globalization, and an increasingly regulatory environment both at home and abroad, the practice of law has become much more international in scope. Schools should encourage studying abroad during law school so lawyers understand different legal systems around the world, learn new languages, gain country-specific expertise, develop a broader perspective on international law, and expand their international network. The academic, professional, and personal benefits are immense and endless.
3. Incorporate diplomacy training. Diplomacy is much more than good manners and a pleasing disposition, and there are definitive contrasts between lawyers and diplomats. In fact, there is a well-known joke in diplomatic circles that lawyers make the worst diplomats. However, there is much to be gained from the political, outcome-oriented approach of diplomats, when contrasted with the contractual, procedure-oriented approach of lawyers. Think: the rule of law and the ethos of diplomacy. Diplomats attempt to balance conflicting interests and seek consensus while lawyers attempt to address all possible contingencies and seek to engage in an adversarial manner by default. But both need to be effective communicators and live by the written word (though diplomats are much more aware of the limits of what can be accomplished by the written word alone). Though particularly true for transactional lawyers, but also for litigation lawyers, there is tremendous value in marrying both approaches and understanding negotiation and dispute resolution from a diplomatic approach. Personally, my background in diplomacy greatly enhanced my legal education and I strongly believe that I’m a better lawyer for understanding both perspectives.
4. Discourage starting law school straight after college. Similar to business schools, law schools should require applicants to work at least 2 years before starting law school. Working for a couple of years before law school can strengthen your ability to read legal cases with a greater appreciation for the nuanced problems that diverse individuals face in business and in life. When it comes to understanding the complexities of the “real” world, there is no substitute for full-time work experience. Also, working can recharge and reconfirm your interest in and passion for the law, so the decision to attend law school is not a result of the academic momentum of college or lack of direction in general. You will also likely see the law through a multidisciplinary lens as a result of this practical experience. Currently, one school that is leading the way in expressing a stronger preference for candidates who have work experience is Northwestern University — I hope other schools follow suit.
5. Encourage alternative career options. More and more law graduates are exploring alternative career options with their JDs, some out of necessity and some out of interest. In promoting the versatility of a law degree, career services in schools should encourage fresh avenues and provide new opportunities and insights, but they are currently ill-equipped to do so. For example, if you’re interested in trademarks, pursue opportunities with branding agencies on naming teams. Or if you’re interested in marrying legal and design, check out the work of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University. Or if you’re interested in working at the intersection of technology, innovation, and legal, explore opportunities at companies such as Clio or AltLegal that are changing the business of law. Or if you want to combine your marketing expertise with legal, look at marketing firms that specialize in lawyers and law firms. In our digital age, the opportunities are endless, and career services need to be well-versed in all these different paths so they can help students make better and more informed decisions.
6. Add more clinical training. Following the medical school model of residency and rotations, law schools should shorten the abstract theory-based learning to two years and require clinical training the last year. I recognize the importance of learning the foundations (and different learning styles), but until you take them outside the stale confines of a classroom, that training is meaningless. Personally, my absolute favorite class in law school was the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic because of its practical training in essential lawyering skills. Furthermore, there is broad support for this change — even President Obama is a proponent of cutting a year of classroom instruction in favor of practical education. Law schools don’t teach us how to be lawyers – this is already a well-established fact. But let’s fix that.
7. Emphasize the need for emotional intelligence. This can’t be emphasized enough. Though some have a natural talent for EQ, clear and focused research reveals that EQ can also be learned, and as such, should be taught in law school. Lawyers need to learn how to be more self-aware, to learn how to work with clients and colleagues, and to understand that humans and relationships are at the core of our business. What we have currently is a wide crop of brilliant, emotionally-stunted lawyers who are incapable of connecting with their clients and merely see them as an impersonal problem to solve. While I recognize this is a broad, broad generalization, there is a reason why it’s a widely-held stereotype in society. Law school teaches reactive listening and listening just long enough to prepare your response, rather than listening to understand. Without a doubt, lawyers who practice emotional intelligence are better lawyers for it. On a similar note, lawyers need to recognize the importance of emotional health as well. The legal field has some of the highest rates of depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. Though well-documented, it’s baffling to me that schools are doing so little to address these issues early on. Much of this relates to emotional intelligence and learning how to manage stress, failures, hyper-competitive personalities, and emotions. Left and right brains are not sufficient on their own in the digital and information economy.
8. Highlight the basic principles of branding and marketing. The digital age has highlighted the need for personal branding more than ever before; it’s also made it easier than ever before. To stand out in the saturated sea of lawyers, lawyers should understand the basic principles of branding and marketing. At a minimum, they should have a rudimentary understanding of the primary social media platforms. In addition to using new technologies, lawyers need to understand the utility of good design, particularly website design. I can’t remember the last time I saw a legal website that stopped me in my tracks and elicited a “WOW!” Instead, I find most law websites to be stuck in a bygone era that are devoid of any personality or character. A website is much more than a placeholder in cyberspace; it’s your digital identity, which is often the gateway to your brand. And first impressions matter, as we all know.
9. Teach the business and economics of a law practice, both old and new. Just knowing the law is simply not enough anymore. In an effort to understand the business of a law practice and how innovation can be applied to the industry, legal education needs to cover project management; technology as it is deployed in the delivery of legal services; cybersecurity; and basic finance fluency. There should also be a required course on the current legal marketplace—what are the driving forces, what new models are in play, where are the opportunities, how to start your own practice, and how to scale a legal practice. Currently, the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) at Brooklyn Law School is one of the leading law schools in training law students to become entrepreneurs, startup lawyers, and legal disruptors, as they harness the resources and power of the extraordinary entrepreneurial ecosystem in New York City.
10. Provide more transactional classes. The current law school curriculum caters to students interested in litigation and tends to be heavily biased toward court cases, scanting students on deal-making skills. As we’ve all heard, law school teaches us how to think like a lawyer, but more accurately, it teaches us how to think like a litigator. With about half of law school graduates heading into transactional fields, law schools need to correct this oversight and use it as an opportunity to revamp the law school curriculum to keep up with the modern digital age. If I want to pursue business law, why do I need to take criminal law or evidence? If the only argument is that it’s tested on the Bar Exam, then it’s high time we look at reforming the archaic Bar Exam as well (which we should do anyway, frankly).
11. Vet the teaching chops of adjuncts. Adjuncts can be fantastic additions to the law school community and can provide great networking opportunities for students, but vet them before. They can be luminaries in their field, but if they can’t relay that knowledge to students on a basic level, that brilliance is of little use — a brilliant practitioner doesn’t equal a brilliant professor.
12. Collaborate better across silos. The hubris of so many lawyers prevents them from understanding that legal is merely one part of a business and neither more nor less important than other verticals. This is particularly relevant for in-house lawyers, but many lawyers have no idea about the functions and roles of marketing, operations, etc. Much of this is because law school teaches you to stay in your lane, and there’s very few discussions about crossovers or how to diversify your professional portfolio. Lawyers have a reputation for being some of the most difficult people to work with, which, inevitably, can negatively impact the overall organization and health of a business. Collaboration, not competition.
13. Approach complex legal issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. Much of the practice of law today is far more influenced by settings outside court than the case-study method, with its focus on appellate decisions, would suggest. The complexity of legal problems has increased and lawyers need to be adept at creative problem-solving in order to provide clients with practical solutions. Legal education should be expanded to include more emphasis on relevant disciplines such as economics, psychology, public policy, and business, not only through more opportunities for joint degrees but through cross-registration at other departments and schools.
14. Change the hiring pipeline for law firms. The current OCI hiring process for law firms doesn’t make any sense. You interview for 2L summer positions (which, in many cases, leads to post-law school employment) before 2L even starts, before you have taken any elective courses, and before you have had time to explore what kind of law you want to pursue. The rigidity of the hiring process is not conducive to hiring the best and the brightest.
15. Interview candidates during the admissions process. We don’t need more lawyers; we need better lawyers. Countless students go to law school each year not because they want to be a lawyer, but because they couldn’t think of a better next step. Many go to school compelled by the outdated illusion of money, or because their college degree tied their hands. An interviewer should be able to spot these misguided reasons from a mile away. There are some very real differences between what a person looks like on paper and how that person is in real life. Personality, presentation, and the ability to communicate effectively should matter to law schools, especially because the student represents the law school during the three academic years and beyond and because developing a rapport and a foundation of trust with clients is a significant part of a lawyer’s job. Many graduate programs, including business and medical schools, require applicants to interview with an admissions officer prior to acceptance, placing tremendous value on the opportunity to read someone. So my (rhetorical) question is, why don’t law schools do a better job at screening candidates?
Admittedly, law schools are businesses (though I hate this fact), and my inner cynic knows the real answer as to why law schools haven’t implemented many of these points, but for the sake of the future of our profession, we need to do better. The future of legal practice is currently on the line, and if law schools continue to push out 20th century lawyers in the 21st century, they further threaten the relevance of the profession. Today, clients are much more tech-savvy and sophisticated than before, and lawyers need to be able to work alongside innovative technologies to keep up with dizzying demand.
Increasingly, I’m surprised at the sheer number of “recovering lawyers” I have met and how many lawyers who want nothing to do with this industry after working in it for some years. While these sentiments may stem from problems in the actual workplace, many of the issues could have been (and should be) addressed in law school (or before).
Let’s work on this much-needed disruption today.