Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Distinguished legal commentator Mark Cohen has addressed his latest column over at Forbes to the skills law schools should be teaching to better prepare grads for the current legal marketplace. Yes, critical thinking and problem solving continue to be vital skills demanded by all legal employers but new grads must also be versed in the following according to Mr. Cohen: Emotional intelligence, creativity, cognitive flexibility, and the ability to work collaboratively with others. Further, law students should be trained in in project management skills, data analytics, business basics, digital basics, risk management, and talent management. As Mr. Cohen argues, the foregoing are the new foundational skills law students will need for many contemporary legal jobs as well as those yet-to-be-created positions.
Law schools have ceded an opportunity to shore up their balance sheets and to do right by grads, the legal industry, and the broader society. How? They have failed to transition from three-year degree stopovers to learning centers for life that upskill grads and other professionals throughout their careers. This would have created “stickiness” with alumni/ae throughout their professional lives and transformed law schools into lifetime learning hubs. In the digital age where competency, micro-credentialing, collaboration, upskilling, people-skills, and agile learning are critical, law schools are relics of the legal guild. Why?
There are a legion of explanations: complacency, detachment from the University—notably the business, engineering, computer science, and mathematics schools-- as well as the broader legal ecosystem and business community, faculty composition/hiring criteria, the American Bar Association’s ineffective law school accreditation oversight, and absence of accountability and performance metrics—especially student outcomes, and self-regulation. Law schools are an island that has become increasingly detached from the broader legal mainland.
The inertia of law schools, like law firms, went unchallenged for decades. Their applicant pool was plentiful, the job market was robust, the curricula were unchanged and unchallenged, and they were cash positive. That rosy picture fueled the growth and proliferation of law schools from the 1980’s until the global financial crisis of 2008. The confluence of that economic maelstrom and its aftermath coincided with rapid advances in technology, the ever- escalating cost of law school and its three-year hitch, a downturn in the legal job market, and disaggregation of a growing number of “legal” tasks. This resulted in the migration of young talent away from law and into other professional service and business careers.
Law School Stasis In An Age of Disruption
Law schools have largely failed to engage in material reform during the post-financial crisis decade, especially the top-tier ones. Their inertia has contributed to an ever-widening skills gap in the legal industry, a challenge and opportunity law schools have failed to respond to meaningfully. Law schools—like firms for whom they have long served as supply sources-- have failed to align with and adapt to a changing marketplace. The ramifications affect the entire legal ecosystem and beyond.
Law schools continue to prepare grads to “think like a lawyer” even as the function, role, skillsets, workplace, and career paths of lawyers are changing dramatically. Law schools still rely on firms to provide practice experience even as clients decline to subsidize on-the-job training of young lawyers. They are preparing grads for practice careers in a market where the practice of law is shrinking and the business of delivering legal services is expanding. Their pedagogy remains rooted in legal doctrine when law is now a three-legged stool supported by legal, business, and technology. They teach the rudiments of legal expertise when that alone will no longer cut it for most lawyers. They perpetuate a mindset and culture of “lawyers and ‘non-lawyers’” when law is now about legal professionals, only some of whom are licensed attorneys.
The New Tools for Success
Competency, not diplomas, dictates marketplace success in the digital age. Diplomas still matter, of course, and so does the granting institution’s brand. But exposure to a new suite of augmented skill sets is what really matters, especially after one’s first gig. The core skills required of legal professionals—apart from baseline legal knowledge—are common among other industries in the digital age, a time when traditional boundaries separating professions/industries are increasingly blurred.
The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report examines the skills required in the digital age. Critical thinking and problem solving, key elements of traditional legal pedagogy, remain. Other critical workplace skills--notably emotional intelligence (EQ), creativity, cognitive flexibility and collaboration-- are now equally important workplace competencies. These contemporary skills—and others including project/process management, data analytics, design, business basics, digital basics, risk prediction/management, and talent management—are largely ignored by the legal Academy and most executive education programs. They are also undervalued by legal industry talent managers even as they have become essential to satisfy rapidly changing legal buyer expectations. These skills are foundational elements of new legal positions to be filled now and many more as-yet to be created.
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