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Some law schools offer tech programs to help students find jobs, but does it work?

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Rather than spend seven hours labeling almost 2,000 trial exhibits by hand, Daniel Sanders thought it would be more efficient to set aside two hours and write a program to automate the task.

But his supervisor at the plaintiffs firm he clerked for in law school was apprehensive about relying on such an unfamiliar process. The exchange, Sanders says, sums up much of his experience as a young lawyer trying to build a career in tech law. Sanders, a 2017 graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, spent three months applying for positions in privacy law and data security with scant responses and no offers.

He eventually got a part-time job working as a litigation associate with a Chicago firm, followed by full-time work with alternative legal services provider Axiom drafting contracts. By December, Sanders had left that position and is now pursuing a solo practice.

Neither of his jobs paid enough to support himself and pay back law school loans. The average amount students borrow at Chicago-Kent is $107,540, according to school-reported information published by Law School Transparency, a group that focuses on law school reform.

“I’ve applied to JD-required, JD-preferred and JD-not-required jobs. To be honest, I really don’t know how much my law degree helps me, because most of the time I don’t hear back,” Sanders says.

Sanders’ law school class had 223 graduates, and by 10 months after graduation nearly 76 percent of them had full-time, long-term jobs that required candidates who have passed the bar or preferred candidates with JDs, according to ABA employment data. Nationwide, the percentage of graduates of ABA-accredited law schools with comparable employment is 75.3 percent. The ABA does not release salary information with the employment data.

The data is similarly fuzzy when it comes to measuring the success of law school technology programs—at least when it comes to getting a job after graduating law school. The promise of these programs is twofold: Students will be prepared for a rapidly changing job market and the school will be differentiated from its many competitors. Indeed, it’s easy to find press releases and marketing materials advertising law school technology programs that prepare students for the changing practice of law. Twenty-four law schools responded to an ABA Journal inquiry about when they launched technology programs, 12 of which started programs in the past eight years. Of those 12 schools, nine were outside of U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 law schools. Some schools with post-2011 programs were located in states with more than five law schools, as well as cities with several competing law schools, where differentiation with technology offerings could help attract more students. That includes New York’s Cornell Law School, Chicago’s Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Boston’s Suffolk University Law School and the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

David Wilkins

Photo of David Wilkins.

But some recent graduates—as well as attorneys with hiring responsibilities—say that there are few tech jobs for new lawyers, largely because the profession isn’t ready for this new cadre of tech-savvy grads.

“Why are people doing this? It has a lot to do with the fact that law school applications dropped by 40 percent after 2009,” says David Wilkins, a Harvard Law School professor and a member of the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Education. “What legal technology is actually going to be used for, versus the hype, is something that we’re just beginning to figure out. So it’s very difficult to figure out what you will be training people for.” Wilkins, director of Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, believes there will be a job market for lawyers who have project and process management training. “But nobody has figured out what the market is yet.”

Competitive Advantage?

Law schools outside the U.S. News top 20 often ask about starting legal technology programs, says Ben Kennedy, a Washington, D.C., consultant who focuses on strategic planning for colleges and universities. He adds that provosts may be more likely to fund legal tech programs than something more traditional, like bar preparation courses.

Ben Kennedy

Photo of Ben Kennedy by Ginny Filer.

“The link between bar passage and increasing net-tuition revenue is more indirect, and it may look to a provost like a rankings play,” Kennedy says. According to him, part of the reason there’s been a drop in LSAT test takers is because of automation. Attorney fee increases came with the BigLaw hiring frenzy in the early 2000s, and corporate clients pushed back. At the same time, new technology made automation possible for some tasks traditionally done by young lawyers.

Stephen Poor, chair emeritus of Seyfarth Shaw, argues that this change has led to a gulf between academic programs and employers. “The law schools have struggled to understand what the skill sets are that they need to provide, the market has struggled to understand the skill sets they need,” Poor says. “Everyone’s trying to figure it out—and no one’s got it figured out at this point.”

For instance, Evan Absher graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law in 2015 at the top of his class. In addition to his academic achievements, he helped start a course on the intersection of law, city policy and technology, and he was a member of the law school’s legal clinic for entrepreneurs, which gives legal advice to small businesses and startups. Despite all of that, he did not get any BigLaw job offers while he was in school.

“That was disappointing, although it was probably for the best. I always had a sense of if I didn’t do something different and unique, I would probably not find a job,” says Absher, who has an undergraduate degree in theater.

Before he graduated from UMKC Law—where the average amount borrowed by law students is $97,419, according to Law School Transparency—Absher was hired by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in education and entrepreneurship. He works for the organization as a senior program officer. His responsibilities including grant making and running a large conference for mayors that focuses on entrepreneurship and growth in major cities.

Regarding the availability of legal technology jobs for young lawyers, Absher says that law firms tend to be Luddites.

“Law firms don’t have interest in changing because it means that everything they built could go away. So you have a profession that in general has all the structures to make it resistant to change,” he says.

Plenty of Supply

Even so, the number of law school legal technology programs has grown significantly over the past decade.

Chicago-Kent is one of 40 law schools included in the Law School Innovation Index created by Daniel W. Linna Jr. while he was a professor of law in residence at Michigan State University College of Law and director of its Center for Legal Services Innovation. The index tracks things like legal-service delivery innovation, and law and technology courses, but not job outcomes for students who participate in the classes and programs. Linna says that is something schools are beginning to measure, but he also finds that employment outcome reporting requirements for ABA-accredited law schools don’t recognize the value of some JD-preferred positions.

And he asserts that someone who can get a big-firm job paying $190,000 annually is not an “average” law student.

“For most students at a lower-ranked school, they may be comparing an entry-level lawyer job paying around $50,000 to a nontraditional legal job, such as a legal solutions architect, that pays much more,” adds Linna, now a visiting law professor at Northwestern University. “So, in that instance, what’s the basis to conclude that the nontraditional job, which would today be classified as ‘JD advantage,’ is less than the JD-required job?”

The JD-advantage job reporting is the challenge in employment data collecting, says Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. The Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar does not collect salary information, he says, and Linna’s point about potential salary differences between JD-required and JD-advantage jobs is true for various industries, not just legal technology.

“A job as a consultant at a big New York City investment bank, that’s a JD-advantage job, and it may pay more than a first-year associate job,” Currier says.

According to an annual National Association for Law Placement study, 13.9 percent of the jobs for the class of 2017 were in business and industry. Out of that group, 7.2 percent of the positions were in the “technology/e-commerce” category, and 2.7 percent were with law-related technology companies. The study also examined salaries and found that the salary average for class members working in what’s described as “legal/law-related technology” companies was $61,666—however, one-third of respondents made $50,000 or less, and only 10.4 percent made over $80,000. The average salary for people in technology or e-commerce companies that were not law-related was $94,408.

The program at MSU is being rebranded as the Center for Law, Technology & Innovation, says Carla Reyes, who has served as its executive director since July 2018. The center will have three parts—the Legal RnD Lab, the Innovation Hub and a Research Node.

According to Reyes, out of 202 graduates who went through MSU’s legal technology program between 2012 and 2017, 97.5 percent have full-time, long-term jobs that either require or prefer law degrees.

The school’s overall employment rate for 2017 graduates in long-term, full-time jobs that either require bar passage or prefer JDs is 76.62 percent, according to ABA employment data. The average amount borrowed at the school is $94,540, according to Law School Transparency.

Alli Gerkman

Photo of Alli Gerkman by Alex Delmonico.

Law schools that have strong technology programs can encourage students to use their learning for problem-solving, and the programs can put students in situations where they must be flexible, creative and resilient while working in teams, says Alli Gerkman, senior director of the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. That’s valuable from a professional standpoint, she adds, but it’s unclear what the programs mean for employment outcomes because few schools share the information for graduates who come through the programs.

“I have not seen much measurement, and they haven’t been more specific in regards to jobs. Are they hoping to have students have more access to jobs, or to better jobs?” she asks. “I fear that many of these programs, while maybe they have done a good job in terms of creating solid learning environments for students, they have not done as good of a job in figuring out what employers who hire new lawyers are looking for.”

Jonathan Askin

Photo of Jonathan Askin by Will O’Hare.

In New York City, Jonathan Askin created and runs the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic at Brooklyn Law School. With the clinic, which he started in 2008, he says he wanted “to try and train the next generation of lawyers to understand the full spectrum of issues that would face next-generation digital startups.”

At the time, he saw lawyers as wallflowers at the technology revolution. When lawyers did get involved at a hackathon or with a new technology project, he says they were often naysayers and would tell everyone what was wrong with the project.

With that in mind, he tries to provide broad, hands-on experience in contract, litigation and policy issues relating to the tech startup world. He covers more traditional intellectual property topics but tries to keep the coursework current with newer technology like blockchain and 3D printing.

“We have grown and morphed as the New York tech community has grown and morphed,” Askin says.

Leveraging New York City’s tech scene, the clinic will partner with local fashion, real estate, biotech and other incubators based on students’ interests.

The ultimate goal is to produce students who can be self-sufficient and comfortable in both legal and startup circles. He says that, unlike when he graduated, his students don’t have the same luxury of going into a law firm for 50 years.

As for employment statistics, Askin only has anecdotal information. He says that of those who went through his clinic, he sees “near 100 percent” employment for graduates doing what they want to do. According to the law school’s employment summary, out of the class of 2017, more than 80 percent had full-time, long-term jobs that were bar-pass required or JD-preferred. The average amount borrowed at the school is $118,519, according to information published by Law School Transparency.

Not Enough Demand

Jason Dirkx, a 2011 graduate of Chicago-Kent, has worked at the Chicago office of Littler Mendelson since 2013 and has had prior tech-related jobs in BigLaw. Dirkx was a software developer before law school, and he started law school during the Great Recession. He saw class after class of summer associates have their job offers deferred.

In part, his motivation in law school was informed during his time as a software developer, where he saw uninformed opinions and decisions being made on technical issues. So he sought to meld the two subject matter areas.

“There seemed to be a fit somewhere for having a technology background and then having legal training,” says Dirkx, now knowledge management counsel at Littler.

While Chicago-Kent did not then have the same legal technology curriculum offerings it does today, Dirkx says that while he was there, the school’s IT undergirding the education was strong. He thought he would focus on intellectual property and licensing law.

After graduation, he first worked for a legal technology startup and then took a job focused on technology and process management at Seyfarth Shaw. Even with a scholarship from Chicago-Kent, Dirkx is still paying off his student loans. Nevertheless, he thinks the JD was worth it.

“Do you necessarily need it? Probably not, but it certainly helps,” he says. “It opens doors that are harder to get through if you don’t have a JD.”

Dirkx’s pre-law school education in computer science likely helped his career path as well.

While people like Dirkx who have computer science backgrounds may not have a hard time finding legal tech work, it can be surprisingly harder for people without such an education—even if they graduated from an Ivy League law school.

Matt Stichinsky, a 2013 graduate of Cornell Law School, started at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett as a corporate associate and then switched to litigation. Ultimately, he decided he wanted to work for startups and tech companies, and Simpson Thacher’s primary work representing credit and banking companies wasn’t the right fit. His attempts to lateral to large law firms with technology startup groups were unsuccessful.

“For entry-level positions, if you are lucky enough to go to a pretty good law school and do well, there are a lot of opportunities for you,” Stichinsky says. “But I think that once you’ve gone out in the field, even for under three years, it becomes exponentially more difficult to get those jobs.”

Stichinsky wound up going back to Cornell for an LLM in law, technology and entrepreneurship. He finished that degree in 2017 and now does venture capital work with early-stage and emerging growth companies as an associate with Buhler Duggal & Henry, a New York City boutique law firm.

He has school loans from both his law degree and his LLM, and he says that his time back at school shaved approximately two years off his class level in terms of pay. According to Law School Transparency, the average amount borrowed by Cornell Law School students is $148,955.

Stichinsky’s salary does allow him to support himself in New York City and make school loan payments, but he doesn’t know when he will get the loans paid off.

“If I would have stayed in corporate practice at Simpson, three or four years down the line I would have had a much easier time lateraling over to a firm like this one or moving to a much bigger tech startup,” he says. “I wouldn’t have had the additional loans to pay off, and it would have made the transition a lot easier.”

Scott Rechtschaffen, Littler Mendelson’s chief knowledge officer, says that he’s open to hiring a new law school graduate for his department but has not as of yet. Citing scheduling conflicts, the firm ended a program where it hired technology interns from Georgetown Law Center. But Littler does have a Harvard Law School student intern working with data analytics and knowledge management. (Editor’s note: One of the authors of this article, Jason Tashea, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law.)

Regarding what he’s looking for with new lawyer hires, Rechtschaffen wants people who understand the practice of law and have experience with things like document automation software and Expert Advisors systems.

“I think we are at an inflection point where law schools will start turning out students with a greater interest and understanding of technology. As we start to hire them, they will demonstrate value to law firms,” Rechtschaffen says.

While some firms are beginning to find utility in lawyers with technological backgrounds or knowledge, some legal software firms have different views.

Nicole Bradick

Photo of Nicole Bradick by Carl Walsh.

“What I look for when I’m hiring is an expert in software development or an expert in user interface design or an expert in project management,” says Nicole Bradick, CEO of Theory and Principle, a boutique legal software company in Portland, Maine. “If they are a law school graduate who happens to know some programming skills or happens to know something about user design, that’s not valuable to me.”

Bradick’s company works with law firms, legal aid providers and nonprofits to develop web-based tools that aim to improve internal work processes and improve client access to legal services.

At her company, she is the only law graduate on staff, and she says that knowledge of the law isn’t important to her hiring process: The client is often the subject matter expert, while her team fills in the technical needs of the project.

Jake Heller

Photo of Jake Heller courtesy of Indiana university Maurer School of Law.

Conversely, for Jake Heller, the CEO of San Francisco-based legal research company Casetext, having employees trained in law and technology means significantly less training and costs.

“JDs can serve in literally any role in the organization,” he says. At Casetext, one-third of his 29 person staff are law school graduates and fill roles like data scientists and especially salespeople because “those folks can use their history and background as a part of a law firm to translate the need of why this technology is important.”

Hiring a graduate who studied both law and technology “means that we have to train less on the basics,” he says. “At the end of the day, it saves a company time and money.”

As for compensation, Heller would not share salaries generally but did say Casetext pays on par with the industry.

Stephanie Ligon Martinez, a 2016 Chicago-Kent graduate, works in sales with IronClad, a contracts software company in San Francisco. She previously worked for Casetext.

For entry-level legal technology sales positions, Martinez says, you can generally earn between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, with a split between base salaries and commissions.

In February, Martinez was hiring salespeople for IronClad. She would consider new law school graduates for the positions, but they would be competing with non-JDs who have experience in legal technology sales. She estimates that 20 percent of the people who work at IronClad are former lawyers.

Help Wanted

Dan Katz, a Chicago-Kent law professor who directs its Law Lab, says that the school hasn’t tracked employment numbers yet but plans to for an 18-credit certificate in legal innovation and technology introduced in fall 2017. The program currently has 15 students who will take analytics, project management courses and a hands-on practicum component.

“We may be sowing seeds that don’t bloom until some period in the future,” he says.

At the moment, Katz believes that the unique offerings of his program will allow strong students to “short circuit” the top law schools in the job market. He compares it to law schools that invested in strong intellectual property programs to provide their students a leg up.

While he’s doing his part, he says that the industry cheerleaders of these programs are going to have to step up if they want them to succeed.

“We need the labor market to reward the institutions that have decided to go forward with this,” he says. “If you want to see these types of things at law schools, you have to vote with your wallet.”

To prime a viable employment pipeline, the Institute for the Future of Law Practice has brought together academic programs, corporations and law firms. Initially called the Tech Lawyer Accelerator at the University of Colorado School of Law, the nonprofit is an educational boot camp and job placement program to bridge legal education and the legal technology and operations fields.

Students in the IFLP program spend three weeks after their first year of law school learning about accounting and finance, data analytics and legal operations. Some universities offer academic credit for this work. Afterward, they are placed in a 10-week internship with an employment partner like Cisco Systems, Perkins Coie or legal technology company Neota Logic, where students make a minimum of $1,000 a week.

William Henderson, the interim director of development at IFLP and law professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, says that the initial feedback he received from employers was that the 10-week internship was too short. So, the program expanded its offerings.

Now students can also participate in a seven-month paid placement during their 3L year, which may pay the equivalent of a $70,000 to $80,000 annual salary. Henderson says this offering is like “a residency baked into the third year of law school.”

Since the 2014 launch of IFLP’s forebear, TLA at Colorado Law, the program has had 89 participants, and 60 have so far graduated from law school. Employment data provided by IFLP indicates that all but one participant is currently known to be employed, two-thirds are in public or private positions practicing law, while the other third is scattered across clerkship, fellowship and industry positions. The program does not collect salary information.

Originally only offered in Boulder, Colorado, boot camps are now also being held in Chicago and Toronto where partners Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Osgoode Hall Law School, respectively, are located.

Stephanie Drumm

Photo of Stephanie Drumm courtesy of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

In 2016, Stephanie Drumm was a second-year law student at Colorado Law and took part in the TLA program.

She interned at Bryan Cave, where she worked with an early-stage startup for three months and then took her experience into the firm to help institutionalize processes to help other clients.

At the end of her internship, the firm hired her to stay on through her third year and ultimately gave her a permanent job after graduation, where she is now a partner-track associate.

TLA and the internship “made a huge difference being able to survive through law school and pay bills,” Drumm says. The $30 per hour she made while on the internship allowed her to take out fewer loans. Today, she says she’s considered a firmwide expert on handling capitalization tables in Excel, a skill she learned at the boot camp.

Drumm says that the financial understanding she gained through the boot camp has been invaluable for her practice, which includes due diligence review of early-stage startups.

“You don’t learn about business financials and operations in law school,” Drumm says.

In 2019, Henderson anticipates having over 90 students from 18 schools take part in IFLP’s boot camps. There will be 14 paid slots for students seeking seven-month placements, and the rest will be in 10-week placements.

Even though programs like IFLP show promise, this type of programing may be a double-edged sword for some early-adopting programs.

Katz worries his program may lose some of its edge as higher-ranked schools focus on this subject-matter area.

“If we’re really, really right about this, then being first isn’t necessarily a huge advantage,” he says.

And, while many academics as well as practicing lawyers say that more will change with regard to how the profession uses technology, no one knows when that will happen. 

“It’s not inappropriate to say a bunch of schools have gone and made different types of offerings around these topics,” Katz says, “and the jury’s out about what it’s all going to mean and how it’s all gonna play out.”

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline "Too far ahead of the curve? Some law schools offer technology programs to stand out from the pack while helping students find jobs, but some question whether it works."

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