Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Future of Respectability for Lawyers (Part 2)

In my last post, I asked whether business leaders had unknowingly provided the legal industry with a long-term solution to declining interest in the legal profession (based on the drop in applications to law school) and potential waning influence.  I suggested that business leaders (inadvertently or otherwise) may be the driving force that ends up saving the legal profession.  I would like to take the discussion one step further.

There is no doubt in my mind that, historically, companies rarely did much legal training for the lawyers they hired.  They simply bought talent—usually by offering employment to attorneys with private practice experience that was valuable to the corporation.  Sometimes this worked extremely well, and sometimes it failed miserably.  Why? Business leaders sometimes possess only basic knowledge of what quality legal talent really looks like (after all, they usually are not lawyers themselves).  Moreover, they often have difficulty finding a lawyer who can operate in a corporate environment and have high-level legal skills.  The “a lawyer is a lawyer” mentality still prevails. 

Adding to the difficult situation is that private firm attorneys often view corporate attorneys as those who could not flourish in private practice (for whatever reason—lack of skill, drive, ability, focus, etc.), and they consequently may be perceived at times by their own companies as somewhat suspect (“If they were really good attorneys, wouldn’t they be practicing with a firm?”).  It becomes a Kobayashi Maru-type of character test for such in-house attorneys—virtually, a no-win situation.  They are hired to help, but at times not fully trusted to do so because they are on staff.  Professional respect, and compensation, for in-house attorneys lags behind that for lawyers in private firms.

Corporations are struggling with the concept of attorneys as part of entrepreneurial teams.  Few companies hire law students directly out of law school for the very same reasons that firms are currently limiting their new-hires—lack of return on their dollar.  Lawyers take 5-15 years to build the experience necessary to obtain the “gravitas” needed for a high level of trust, depending on the field.  Many lawyers never achieve this status; they are simply caught in an eddy of repeating activity.  (Perhaps this issue is worthy of a separate post!)

At this juncture, the in-house path remains precarious, and pursued at one’s peril.  At most companies, there is no specified legal track, unlike the well-worn management paths.  Many corporate legal positions are much lower paying than firm jobs, and often of the “J.D. preferred” type of position—helpful to be a lawyer, but not necessary.  Graduating law students usually do not choose this corporate path—it is chosen for them, as they graduate from lower tier law schools, have less than stellar grades, or perhaps due to personal obligations involving location or family.  Perhaps such students never had a great desire to be lawyers, drifting into professional school through lack of other opportunities.   Additionally, inside companies, non-lawyers often feel that their in-house attorneys are a form of threat, and sometimes attempt to undermine them.* Advanced education continues to be viewed, probably irrationally, with some suspicion in the business environment.  Perhaps because the lawyers presently in-house have offered little to benefit the business operations, or because they are just not well understood.

These attitudes appear to be changing.  As the legal environment continues evolve, students may actually enter law school for the specific purpose of being in-house counsel, perhaps even having a specific company or industry in mind prior to taking their first class.  Law schools are well advised to shift their focus to accommodate this new reality.  Law schools that play the game well will again become a dominant option for bright college students.  What does this future look like?  That will be the subject of my next post.  More soon!

 --Marcos Antonio Mendoza 


*Interestingly, I have never heard a single MBA joke (has anyone?), but frequently hear lawyer jokes.  However, many millennials report to me that lawyer jokes are no longer de rigueur around them—in other words, people feel sorry for them and the challenges they face!


Corporations, Current Affairs, Law School | Permalink


First, anyone who knows how to use Star Trek terminology properly gets a "fair hearing."

I agree with your assessment. However, don’t overlook the entrepreneurial value of a JD (and license). I was part of a closely-held family durable goods manufacturing business started with my brother and father (started 1983, sold 2011). I attended (92-96) a night law school (unable to locate on a tier; but, all taught by practicing attorneys in their field or sitting judges/justices) and virtually everything was translated from academic to application within a day. Unlike an employee, I paid the “stupid tax” so lessons were quickly imprinted.

Converse to the JD obtaining an “in house” position is the value added by exposure to the day-to-day realities of maintaining and building a business. Decisions made not just on the basis of legal rigor but including the reality of repercussions. The “value added” to that JD who wishes to transition to outside counsel can bring insight and wisdom unlike that garnered by the straight line to private practice.

The value of navigating the plethora of issues faced by small business are inclusive of pretty much every area of our discipline except, perhaps, juvenile and family law. However, if you are trying to keep a workforce intact without a multitude of distraction these areas can certainly creep into your repertoire.

I see great hope for those law schools who embrace both the law and entrepreneurship.

Posted by: Tom N. | May 19, 2015 2:41:29 PM

Tom N.—I agree that there is entrepreneurial value in being licensed to practice, or even just having the JD. The critical thinking and writing skills are a definite benefit, and if one is able to handle law school, the daily flow of work in the business world should be easier. Certainly, the dealing with lawyers and legal concepts should be fairly routine, unlike for some non-lawyers.

What I’ll try to address next is whether businesses will expand their use of lawyers at all levels, and how law schools might address to enhance law students’ experience for in-house work. Whether businesses, especially larger ones, look beyond their current view of lawyers only being used in strictly (and traditional) legal roles remains to be seen. It might be a chicken or egg thing—are schools waiting until businesses open up more positions to create specific curriculum, or are businesses waiting to open up such positions when law schools train lawyers for in-house positions?

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 19, 2015 3:01:32 PM

I am biased because I now primarily teach in a business school, but I think having more classes with JD and MBA students together, perhaps co-taught by law and business school professors make a lot of sense. These classes could help teach JDs to be parts of business teams - especially if group-based assignments were embraced. For the JDs who don't go in-house, these classes might help them start building their books of business, as many MBA students are eventually in positions to hire attorneys.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | May 20, 2015 7:49:16 AM

Haskell—I think that is an excellent idea, and gives an advantage to universities that already have close ties between the programs. I might be wrong, but currently in most schools, the JD students just attend the MBA classes, and courses aren’t specifically developed to take advantage of the synergy, so there isn’t as much of a global advantage as the method you describe. The joint program just seems like a way to get both degrees faster. Because law students come from almost every college major imaginable, but MBA students tend to have business degrees, I think such integrated learning would assist both student groups in their understanding of each other, and eventually improve the business environment for everyone, as you point out.

I think an issue with JD/MBA combined degrees is that firms often don’t value the MBA experience (which seemed strange, since firms are businesses), and businesses don’t value the JD experience for some reasons we have discussed. Perhaps both industries feel that a multiple degreed person is less valuable since they are less committed. (That doesn't seem to be a problem in academia!) I have not seen how such JD/MBA programs have been fairing in the last 20-30 years (maybe someone can weigh in here), but it doesn’t seem like they have been meeting specific needs, since I have seen a proliferation of even more specialized dual degrees.

Perhaps someone can comment on whether such interaction that Haskell suggests between business and law students in combined courses would work at their school.

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 20, 2015 8:28:20 AM

Perhaps of interest, on Uber's in-house legal department: http://lawandmore.typepad.com/law_and_more/2015/05/uber-builds-in-house-legal-department-totaling-70-employees.html

Posted by: Haskell Murray | May 20, 2015 11:46:40 AM

I’m equally biased since I teach in a business school. I do owe a lot, however, to combined JD-MBA programs and coursework since one such course ten years ago (Intellectual Capital Management), co-taught by Northwestern Law Professor Clinton Francis and Kellogg Professor James Conley inspired me to pursue a path that eventually led to a career in academia. Things have come full circle since I collaborated this past semester with FSU Law Professor Jake Linford to launch IP and Business Strategy, a course that was co-listed with the law school and business school at FSU. It took some entrepreneurial leg work to design the course and obtain administrative approvals from both colleges, but in the end we were able to offer the course and it was split almost evenly among JD and MBA students. Having the chance to teach an interdisciplinary course with an excellent colleague and scholar like Jake Linford was a great experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who is thinking about taking on such a project (I’m happy to discuss the process and our approach in greater detail with anyone offline). Many of the business students mentioned how much they appreciated hearing from the lawyers’ perspective on business issues. The team-oriented approach we adopted yielded good discussions and mimicked what happens in the real world when lawyers and business people work together to solve problems. As far as JD-MBA programs go, I think the more successful ones provide the flexibility for faculty across colleges to generate interdisciplinary courses and support innovative learning environments for both business and law students, rather than just offer two separate degrees that are then combined in the end. This also mimics what happens in the real world within organizations. The more successful and innovative organizations facilitate and reward interdisciplinary work.

Posted by: David Orozco | May 20, 2015 2:13:35 PM

Thanks, David! I think, as you saw, that there are still some roadblocks into widespread adoption of interdisciplinary courses--but you have seen the benefits. I'll try to hit on this more in my next post or two.

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 20, 2015 2:42:49 PM

Marcos, thanks for this post. I want to validate a small part of what you say in your concluding paragraph: “As the legal environment continues evolve, students may actually enter law school for the specific purpose of being in-house counsel, perhaps even having a specific company or industry in mind prior to taking their first class.” Yes! I have been seeing more students come to law school at Tennessee over the past few years saying that they would like to use their law degree in, for example, health care or real estate (both of which are somewhat big in Tennessee). They want to know how to create clear curricular and professional development pathways to success. I look forward to your next installment.

Posted by: joanheminway | May 20, 2015 7:33:52 PM

Joan--I think how law schools achieve this (if they can) will be a big factor in the arc of this story. Thanks!

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 21, 2015 7:28:06 AM

Many law schools are working on it, Marcos. Those who are not treating the student as an individual professional-in-training are, imho, missing the boat. But it is hard to do. Neither staff nor faculty dedication alone is enough to help prepare our students for the continuously changing Brave New World they are destined to encounter as they leave law school. Thanks for helping us to continue to re-vision the emerging future for these students, however. It is a valuable exercise.

Posted by: joanheminway | May 21, 2015 12:26:32 PM

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