The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the regulatory body that oversees the legal profession in England and Wales, has enacted a major overhaul of legal training and solicitor licensure to take effect in 2020. Gone is the requirement solicitors must acquire a law degree for practice. In its place is a competency-based examination offering different paths to becoming a solicitor. The exam will not spell the end of traditional legal education in the UK—no doubt many aspiring solicitors will opt for some form of traditional legal study. But the exam’s emphasis on competency based learning and its experiential requirements will undoubtedly serve to update outdated legal curricula, reduce law student debt, and better serve the public by ensuring new entrants to the profession have core competency and a modicum of practical experience. If this sounds like medical training, it does to me, too.
Mark Cohen, founder and CEO of Legal Mosaic, talks with Lee Pacchia about legal education and the legal marketplace. Cohen notes “You can’t consider law schools without considering the legal market place.” He explains the interplay between the two and the need for greater collaboration between the Academy and the private sector.
Harvard Law School has announced that it will be digitizing its vast collection of U.S. case law and making it available free online. Ravel Law, a commercial research and legal analytics company is partnering with Harvard and funding the substantial cost of converting the collection from print to electronic format. The project is called “Free the Law.”
In an article appearing in the October 28, 2015 edition of The New York Times, Erik Eckholm writes:
“Now, in a digital age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for.”
“Free the Law” has significant implications for the legal vertical and beyond.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines scholarship as: “the serious study of an academic subject and the knowledge and methods involved.” If we accept this definition and apply it to “legal scholarship,” there is a disconnect. Law professors are the profession’s self-designated “scholars.” But many of them have never practiced law. So how can they be deemed to have an understanding of “the knowledge and methods” of practice? And with little or no practice experience and an unfamiliarity with trends in the marketplace, how is their scholarship relevant to the tectonic shift in legal delivery?
This begs the question: why do law school professors have a stranglehold on legal scholarship? What about leading practitioners who help shape the law? And what about legal entrepreneurs who are reengineering the structures and methods by which legal services are being delivered?
And why are legal thought leaders not deemed to be engaged in legal scholarship when they explain-sometimes demystify-the legal ecosystem to law students, lawyers, and the general public? Why are these individuals, many of whom have drawn their scholarship from first-hand experience-not secondary sources-not considered legal scholars by the Academy? After all, was it not lawyers who decreed that hearsay is generally inadmissible? So much of what passes for legal scholarship is hearsay because so little of it has been derived from first-hand experience? [Read more…]
Lawyers parse words and define terms. So why do they so often use “legal practice” and “legal delivery” interchangeably when the terms have such different meanings and implications? This distinction is especially important in the context of the tectonic shift occurring in the legal vertical. The practice of law is very different than the delivery of law. This is more than a semantic distinction.
The Practice of Law Has not changed all that Much
The practice of law has not changed much since I became a lawyer a few decades ago (Jimmy Carter was President and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series). Trial, corporate, and the other practice areas are pretty much as they were then as are the Rules of Evidence, Professional Responsibility, and other core precepts that govern lawyers and guide their practice. Yes, international practice has become more prevalent and practice areas like IP have taken on heightened prominence, but choice of law, forum non conveniens, and all those other things lawyers struggled to master for the Bar exam have changed little over the years.
Some will say, “but what about technology?” Certainly, technology is now a part of legal life-just as it is in virtually every other facet of our existence. Technology is no longer a vertical; it has become a horizontal. And this certainly applies to its impact upon law. But it is not so much the practice of law that it affects-what lawyers do and how they do it. Rather, technology has profoundly changed the delivery of legal services- how and by what structure those services are best rendered and by whom. Technology has been a key factor in creating a legal supply chain in a vertical where, until relatively recently, law firms were the sole outsourced legal service providers.
Electronic discovery has exponentially increased the volume of data-and ironic that technology generally drives costs down and promotes efficiency except with law firms. At the same time, privilege, relevance, and other legal precepts governing the production and evidentiary value of that data have scarcely changed. What is different is client unwillingness to pay BigLaw rates for high volume, low value work such as document review. [Read more…]
Ok, so the decision to pursue or forego a legal career hardly elevates to Prince Hamlet’s existential choice of living a pained life or ending it to endure something perhaps worse. But let’s face it: embarking upon a legal career is no longer a reserved seat for a comfortable, predictable career journey.
To the contrary, those about to embark upon that journey confront: (1) the daunting cost of law school; (2) an average of $120K debt for attending; (3) a job market where, nationally, close to half of all graduates do not have Bar-required employment nine months after graduation; (4) a widespread market perception that law school graduates — even those from elite schools — lack “practice ready” skills; (5) cut-backs in hiring newly minted lawyers — even among many stalwart law firms; (6) an erosion of mentorship due in part to pressure on senior lawyers to “produce” more (7) the unlikelihood of making (equity) partner; (8) instability of law firms; (9) global competition; (10) technology companies creating products that replace services; and (11) a blizzard of negative press trumpeting the glum prospects for the profession; and (12) alternative career choices–finance, accounting, technology, etc.– that portend greener pastures and do not require the same time and financial commitment to prepare for entry.
So how do you respond to a wide-eyed young person who asks, “Should I become a lawyer?”
It’s Rarely a Simple Answer
Whether or not someone should become a lawyer does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” answer. Some variables include: (1) what other options are available? ; (2) is there a particular reason why the person wants to become a lawyer (to save the environment, to represent undocumented aliens, etc.)? ; (3) does the individual have financial means — or access to them — to pay for law school and, if not, what is the risk tolerance for assuming (additional) education debt? (4) can she get admitted to a highly ranked law school or exact a good financial deal from a lower ranked one?; (5) what are the expectations of the individual going into law school? (a reality check may be necessary); (6) does the individual have other skills (languages, business or technical background, etc.) that could be leveraged and serve to distinguish them from others?; and (7) how informed is the prospect about the job market, especially relative to the cost—actual and lost opportunity—of attending law school?
The list of variables goes on, of course, but if law schools are not willing to provide their version of “informed consent,” then the “caveat emptor” student/buyer must conduct independent due diligence. And make no mistake about it: law students — like students generally — are “emptors” of the institution they enroll in and have a right, if accepted, to be trained for the legal marketplace not as it was even a decade ago but as it is today. Law schools are not guarantors for matriculated students’ success, but they do — at least in my judgment — bear responsibility to imbue students with a cursory understanding of the current global legal marketplace as well as provide them with doctrinal and practical skills necessary to be “market ready” upon graduation and passing the Bar. And “market ready” today means something very different than it did until recently when law students transitioned to law firms and received years of client subsidized training and mentorship. [Read more…]