Monday, April 22, 2013

Teaching law students strategic thinking skills

The Dean of Northeastern School of Law Jeremy Paul and Stroock Managing Partner Alan Klinger have co-authored an article in the New York Law Journal about the importance of teaching students the skill of strategic thinking.

The Role of Strategic Thinking in Legal Training

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As the path to professional success is re-imagined, the starting point for lawyers hoping to flourish is that they be responsive to client needs and sensitive to public values. The question is how can new lawyers both within law schools and law firms be best trained to ensure that client concerns are paramount and that an appreciation for the public good informs legal advice. Of course, the hallmarks of great lawyering will always remain: knowledge of the law, rigorous analysis, strong listening skills, and clarity of written and oral communication. However, more is needed to educate tomorrow's first-rate professionals. Indeed, challenging and imaginative education in school and at work constitutes the best solution to the current struggles confronting our profession and America's law schools. Here are some ways to improve lawyer training.

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Strategic thinkers . . . must focus not just on resolving ambiguity, but on navigating uncertainty. In the rapidly changing economy in which clients function and lawyers seek to prosper, the only constant is that tomorrow will look different from today. Accordingly, the strategic thinker must begin by identifying achievable objectives and planning a course to reach them. Questions such as the meaning of a statute or the reach of a case feel very different from questions such as in what markets is success likely to be found; which areas of business (or practice) are likely to grow; in what locations should an enterprise expand; or how is technology likely to transform business. Lawyers confront the latter sort of questions every day, and must move swiftly to ensure that junior lawyers and law students become more comfortable addressing such strategic challenges.

Step one involves data. Lawyers have long been familiar with the painstaking work of building a case or negotiating a deal through careful assembly of relevant information. This differs greatly from what students see in law school classrooms, which is why clinical education and the immersive field placements Northeastern University School of Law and schools with similar programs employ are so valuable. But institutional leaders must go well beyond case preparation to determine what facts must be gathered to formulate a strategy. They must assemble teams to seek out such relevant information. The comfort of the appellate opinion gives way to the task of identifying potential customers and predicting their needs; selecting relevant competitors and measuring their tactics; and devising metrics to determine whether the institution is on track. The lawyers of tomorrow must be increasingly familiar with the tools for assembling and analyzing data that will be second nature for their clients.

The harder challenge is one of mindset. The tough, critical analysis demanded from attorneys makes it child's play for the lawyer on a project team to find holes in the links between data and strategy. When the business strategist suggests opening a branch office in a nearby city due to population growth, the lawyer may be the first to ask whether the buying habits of the newcomers can demonstrably be shown to warrant expansion. Lawyers by their very nature are often cautious about the sorts of inferences business people rely upon to move things forward. Young lawyers must be able to overcome such professional prejudice. In today's world, let alone tomorrow's, the better solution to problems lurking within available data is to gather more and better data. It's far cheaper and easier to obtain and analyze data than it was 20 years ago, and these costs will keep falling. Lawyers helping clients manage legal risks must embrace the need for quantitative assessments even as they retain their well-honed flair for qualitative analysis.

Continue reading here.


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