ABA Journal

The New Normal

Why waste the crisis in legal education?

By Paul Lippe

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As previewed in a previous post, I had the chance last month to speak to the ABA’s meeting of law school deans.

The meeting was off the record, so I can’t disclose any of the group discussions. But I can share my own observations based on what I’ve heard from various current and former deans (and a few other senior academic administrators) over the last few months, as well as my talk.

The key takeaway for me is that law school should update its model from “think like a lawyer” (which most often means think like an appellate litigator) to “understand how law actually works in a specific context and make it work better.” That would mean scholarship that focuses less on what other scholars write and more on what happens in practice. It would mean faculty who are more interested in the context of modern law practice, whether in a global corporation, a housing project or a family business. It would hopefully mean concretely improving access to justice and simplifying compliance.

If we don’t improve the methodology, the value that lawyers provide will continue to lag, and there won’t be sufficient resources to support young lawyers or law schools. Law schools can take a page from other professional schools like medicine (where this is called “outcomes” and “efficacy”) or engineering, and get more engaged in practice, help define and assess better ways of doing legal work, and disseminate improved methodologies. For example, from what I know, Jeff Carr at FMC gets better results at less cost than most lawyers. Shouldn’t law schools try to assess his ACES model, to determine whether there are some approaches to practice that actually produce superior outcomes?

Paul Lippe

Historically, law schools could say they “couldn’t” be more like medical schools because they didn’t run hospitals and couldn’t conduct clinical trials. Now, with clients operating in private clouds and able to integrate students and faculty in “virtual rounds,” and with a crying need to be able to make empirical statements about which approaches work better, it seems like the best way for law schools to improve their sustainability is to add more value through engagement.

It’s not an easy time to be a dean. There is considerable evidence that this is a time of “disruptive” change for law, and even if the downturn is only a cycle, the cycle is hitting hard in terms of applications, enrollment, financial aid and budgets. Probably between five and 20 schools will close, and at a minimum, as Northeastern Dean Jeremy Paul just wrote in this space, “law schools will be expected to do more with less.” Most faculty have tenure and some are resistant to change, most costs are fixed, and many students and faculty are fixated on short-term U.S. News rankings, which largely measure spending and reputation: backward-looking indicators. There’s no way to make dramatic changes by fiat, and it’s not clear that making short-term cuts will help in any way.

Deans aren’t equipped with a toolkit that would prepare them to manage in such a dynamic time. If your whole career (as was the case for most lawyers until recently) unfolded in a period of growth and little change—one dean said to me: “My grandmother, who went to law school in 1952, would be totally comfortable walking into today’s law school class”—then these changes will feel disjointed. What’s more, there is a very considerable amount of anger, especially among recent grads, directed at schools generally and deans in particular.

That said, I think a plurality, if not a majority, of deans recognize that change is overdue. And as Stanford economist Paul Romer said in 2004 when speaking to venture capitalists about increasing competition faced by America from rising education levels throughout the world, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

The changes being discussed at law schools aren’t especially bold or terrifying, but they require some positive movement. The good news is that law schools continue to enjoy a lot of social capital, and most people in the profession are eager to help. In preparing for my talk, I asked various in-house friends for help, and all were very eager to engage with law schools and many offered to do projects with faculty and students.

One piece from the talk I can report has to do with naming. Any time you do something different, it’s helpful to have a label (think “hybrid” car or “lite” beer), which delineates the old from the new, even though the new of course always has many elements that are not new. For the moment, the deans homed in on the term “Law.Next” and its correlative “LawSchool.Next.”

So let’s talk about Law.Next (we didn’t want to be parochial and call it “New Normal”) and see how that feels, and start looking for ways to validate whether engagement helps, or develop other ideas that will help law schools move forward.

Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

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