Thursday, August 21, 2014
In his August 1st article "This Is Law School? Socrates Takes a Back Seat to Business and Tech" John Schwartz of the New York Times highlights three of the several law schools seeking to expand legal education and what it means to be a lawyer. Both directly and indirectly, the article challenges our conception of where the boundaries of the legal industry should lie and what law students should do post-graduation. His article showcases programs at Michigan State, Northwestern and University of Colorado Bolder law schools devoted to teaching a more entrepreneurial approach to law practice and the use of legal skills.
In discussing these forward-thinking programs, the article also highlighted two tensions playing out within legal practice and legal education. One tension touched upon in the article is found between a more narrow traditional interpretation of legal employment and a more expansive one. How we choose to define and value legal employment will greatly influence our students’ placements and the reputation of law schools who seek new, more entrepreneurial opportunities for their graduates.
Currently when a law student graduates, finds a high paying job in the tech sector, and uses her education to build the knowledge engines of a legal technology tool tradition and ABA rules dictate that we not count that graduate’s job in her law school’s graduate employment numbers in the primary J.D. required employment statistic. By that same tradition law schools graduate lawyers, judges or professors, not business leaders, knowledge engineers or entrepreneurs. Those traditions culminate in law school career services departments that have networks focused on finding graduates jobs as lawyers and clerks or other positions that require a J.D. degree and bar passage. Given that non-traditional positions do not contribute to the primary J.D. required employment statistic, law students receive little encouragement from law schools to think outside the lines of a traditional legal career.
In this job market, we should teach law students to seek opportunities to leverage their Juris Doctorate degree and other personal skills in non-traditional legal professions. Graduates could find high level employment in growing industries where having a J.D. makes our graduates leaders in their field. Arguably these positions should require a J.D. because these functions are the practice of new law. Law school graduates may become knowledge engineers, legal data scientists, legal data visualizers, information governance executives or chief compliance officers. These positions create technology solutions that perform with legal expertise on behalf of a lawyer or use deep legal knowledge on a daily basis. While this path will not be right for all law school graduates, the 20% of graduates it may fit would positively impact law school graduate employment statistics. When we change how we count the employment status of our students so that these new opportunities for legal employment are included in the tally, we will see a healthy expansion of opportunities presented by law school career services offices.
The other tension in the NY Times article exists between those who think technology will bring modest iterative improvements to the legal industry and those who think technology will disrupt the traditional legal industry. "Catherine L. Carpenter, vice dean of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, tracks curriculum across the country. She said schools are trying to teach their students to run their own firms, to look for entrepreneurial opportunities by finding ‘gaps in the law or gaps in the delivery of services,’ and to gain specialized knowledge that can help them counsel entrepreneurs." Teaching students the business aspects necessary to run their own firms leads students down the more traditional legal paths of counseling entrepreneurs and improving the efficiency of legal practice – at the most iterative changes. However, teaching our students to find “gaps in the law or gaps in the delivery of services” invites foundational questions about the legal system and its function. When combine with technology-driven solutions, the answers students discover to those fundamental questions have the greatest possibility of disrupting the legal industry. Legal technology will open new and underserved markets for graduates that will use both their legal and entrepreneurial skills.
In the New York Times article, Professor Paul F. Campos was “amused by the focus on tech. ‘The irony here is that these new technologies are destroying traditional legal jobs!’” The alternative perspective? Technology will combine with traditional law to shift the legal industry. We will begin to see that these non-traditional legal jobs are the practice of law. Whether this “new law” practice is better and jobs are more or less plentiful remains to be seen.