The New Normal: 5 Years of Legal Rebels

Five initiatives that legal education needs

Posted Sep 26, 2013 1:30 PM CDT
By Phil Weiser

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Phil Weiser

Just like every other corner of the profession, legal education is grappling with a New Normal that was barely appreciated as recently as four or five years ago.

Even as law schools welcomed incoming classes this year, the mood has changed. And it’s no secret why.

Applications are down nationally for the third year in a row. And larger law firms are significantly cutting back on their entry-level hiring. The American Bar Association is also starting to focus on changes to legal education, recently releasing a draft report (PDF) from the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.

Change is happening, and that’s a good thing.

The upside of today’s New Normal is that law schools have the opportunity to develop a new generation of lawyers who are more purposeful than ever before about how to develop and navigate their careers. These graduates will be legal entrepreneurs. By that, I mean lawyers—whether working in government, nonprofits, law firms, consulting firms, or businesses—who take ownership of their career paths and develop the tool kit necessary to add value and succeed wherever they work. Developing legal entrepreneurs, however, requires a commitment to innovation and experimentation that until recently has not been traditionally associated with legal academia.

To underscore the range of emerging innovations needed in legal academia, consider the following five initiatives now taking place in legal education:

1. Build an entrepreneurial mindset.

Training law students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset is foundational for the New Normal. The reality is that large law firms are employing fewer and fewer law graduates, and the early interview week model is not what it once was. As such, law schools need to reorient their students’ thinking about their careers. An entrepreneurial mindset is a must in the New Normal, and law students need to heed LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s teachings in The Start-up of You. How law schools will transmit those lessons to a notoriously risk-averse group remains to be seen. But the age of law school as a risk-free option for people who expect a job to be handed to them at the end is over.

2. Challenge employers on entry-level hiring.

Challenging employers to think differently about entry-level hiring and summer jobs is a critical to adjusting to the New Normal. The marketplace for legal talent is incredibly traditional, and the resistance of employers to experiment is a formidable challenge to creating new opportunities for recent law school graduates. Most law students would welcome the chance to work at any number of successful law firms or in-house organizations in a temporary capacity over the summer or even upon graduation—even at lower rates than traditional summer associate or associate positions—because such jobs can offer valuable opportunities to build marketable skills and develop important networks, connections, and references. And such opportunities present firms with the chance to use the talents of these students or recent graduates. But a big impediment to developing such an opportunity is that firms often believe that they cannot provide them if they are not prepared to offer a long-term job when the student graduates. A number of law schools are taking this issue head on, such as the Cardozo New Resident Associate Mentor Program and, in Colorado, where both law schools (the University of Colorado and the University of Denver) are collaborating on a Legal Residency program that encourages law firms or other employers to hire a recent graduate for 12 to 18 months, offer a quality experience, and provide apprenticeship outside of the traditional associate track.

3. Compress law school education and couple with experience.

Law schools can couple a 2.5 year degree with a quality experience. The opportunity to graduate in 2.5 years, which can be achieved through accelerated schedules that permit saving a semester, is increasingly appealing as tuition costs has risen greatly over the past decade. Law schools encouraging such paths can work with partners like Cisco’s general counsel Mark Chandler, who is welcoming paid interns for seven months at Cisco from June 1st after their second year until the following January, enabling students to graduate not only with less debt, but with more experience.

4. Provide multidisciplinary training.

Law schools increasingly are providing their students with multidisciplinary training, including but not limited to key business skills. The New Normal means that “thinking like a lawyer” is not enough; we need lawyers who can “think like clients.” For lawyers to understand their clients, they need to learn their businesses. This concept applies to those working in the public sector as well as the private sector; lawyers with domain knowledge of the fields they are practicing in are simply more likely to succeed than those without such knowledge. This means more nontraditional courses, more interdisciplinary courses, and more “boot camp”-type experiences.

5. Engage with the community.

Law schools need to engage with their communities, get to know their success stories, and reverse-engineer them. The reality is that law firm hiring is not coming back, and a core challenge for law schools is to develop nontraditional opportunities—such as ones in business development, compliance, human resources, and public policy—for law school graduates with the right skill sets. The challenge is that developing such partnerships and opportunities is a long game. But the forces that shaped today’s New Normal were a long time coming; the actions that will enable law schools to adapt will take time as well.

Experimentation, innovation, and the New Normal.

In 2008, most law school deans were living in the Old Normal. Today, all law school deans know that they are in a New Normal. The reality is that the shaping of today’s environment took place over a long period of time, even if we did realize it while it was happening. As such, developing a new model will not happen overnight. But momentum is building. The broad outlines of the New Normal—the need for a more entrepreneurial mindset, more community engagement, more multidisciplinary training, and new (and nontraditional) employment pathways—are now taking shape through experiments all over the country. The exciting part of this emerging paradigm is that it is still very much a work in progress, and law schools have the opportunity to develop creative partnerships and innovations to support our students in a changing and challenging environment.


Phil Weiser is the Dean of the University of Colorado Law School.

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