Sunday, October 20, 2013
On Saturday, my co-blogger, Jim Levy mentioned an open letter to law schools from a small-firm practitioner, Carolyn Elefant. Jim’s post mainly concerned what she and other small-firm practioners wanted law schools to teach law students. In this post, I would like to explore her reasons for posting this open letter. They demonstrate why law schools need to significantly reform how they deliver legal education.
Elefant writes, "I’ve gone out of my way to hire and pay law students and new grads in my field [emerging renewable energy technologies and micro-grids, pipeline regulatory proceedings and eminent domain on behalf of landowners and communities and 21st century legal ethics] because I believe that my generation in this profession owes an obligation to train those who come after." She continues, "But increasingly, I am finding that many of your students are, quite frankly, useless to me; lacking the basic skill set necessary to incorporate them quickly and seamlessly into a busy and frequently resource-constrained practice like mine."
She remarks, "Yet what I can’t fathom or tolerate is the utter lack of curiosity that many (but not all) new grads bring (or don’t bring) to the table when they hit the job market. . . . how can today’s students not be excited about the cornucopia of riches at their fingertips — from free caselaw, free online legal briefs and memos by top attorneys, substantive analytic blogs galore, and an endless stream of news items on Twitter curated by experts in every field?"
She notes, "I need young lawyers who can keep a pulse on my industry and inform me of what’s new. I want new lawyers to challenge me every single day, not to sit like potted plants waiting for the next assignment. And most importantly, lawyers who work with me have got to have basic 21st technology skills."
Why are small-firm practitioners important to law schools? "But here’s why what my solo and small firm colleagues and I have to say matters so much. Back in the day, most schools prepped attorneys to work at big law – but those jobs are gone for good. Likewise, most government employers, which can hire big law cast offs with several years of experience, won’t touch new grads. . . . So, hate to break it to you, law schools, but you’re stuck with employers like me: solo and small firms who are the face of today’s legal employers."
She concludes, "Earth to law schools, the bottom line is this. Once upon a time, you all would have hung your heads in shame at the horror of your illustrious students slumming in solo and small land. Reality check – working full time or on a contract or part time basis for a solo or small firm may be the future for the majority of your students. What’s more, my guess is that many of your grads would be grateful for an opportunity to actually use their legal skills instead of being directed to non-legal analyst or marketing jobs or doc review. Moreover, the practice of law has changed, and in case you haven’t noticed, solos and smalls are neither bumbling losers nor morons churning out cookie-cutter wills and incorporations using fill-in-the-blank forms that you believe." "We can help rescue our profession from this mess (brought on, largely I might add, by large firms who never thought that the day of reckoning would come). But to help, law schools need to do their part by producing graduates who can serve our needs so that we can serve our clients."
I hope that law schools listen to Carolyn Elefant’s letter. It demonstrates the realities of today’s legal practice and what law schools need to do to survive. You can read the rest of her letter here.
P.S. I urge you to forward this letter to your deans and faculty colleagues.