Law School Today – Not for the Faint at Heart……or Wallet

Written by Howard Reissner, CEO at Planet Data

A recent article in the New York Times addressed Brooklyn Law School’s decision to substantially reduce the tuition for its next entering class. Brooklyn Law acknowledged that it was responding to the market pressures of a continuing decline in the number of applicants to law school in the United States. This law school is one of the first to take such a radical step in an effort to maintain its academic standards and to enable its graduates to face a somewhat reduced level of potential debt in an extremely challenging legal job market.  Quite possibly the next course of action by law schools will be reductions in class sizes. Clearly, some of the best and brightest are less enamored of a legal career than just a few years ago, and are looking elsewhere for financial and spiritual fulfillment.

These dynamics have left all but the top fifteen law schools scrambling for the shrinking pool of highly qualified applicants. As such, in a reversal of fortune, the schools are now courting potential students with financial aid packages approaching the signing bonuses for star athletes. However, most schools do not have the ability to exist without high tuition fees. Alumni contributions and endowments cannot sustain this model long term.  A contributing factor to this situation is that too many new law schools have opened their doors over the past thirty years, significantly increasing the job seeking pool. Clearly, the law schools that thrive over the next decade will either have to be in the top fifteen, or re-think how they train their students and prepare them for this altered legal environment.

Until recently it was generally believed that the enormous rise in law school tuition over the past decades would be accompanied by high paying “big law” jobs, enabling student debt to be eventually repaid. However, since 2008, the number of such positions has declined dramatically (but not tuition or debt), and it is unlikely that we will return to that economic model. Why? Because the recession of 2008 begat the necessity for attorneys to become more efficient due to client’s smaller budgets and the transparency afforded to the legal process by technology enhancements. As such, large firm clients would no longer pay for young attorneys to be trained on “their dime”. The result has been a dramatic reduction in the number of “big law” positions available to graduates that will allow them to pay off high loan balances.  Big law firms partners can no longer leverage that economic model with impunity; witness the number of firms that have failed or are in economic duress.

So, faced with these macro and micro issues what actions should law firms take to remain competitive and what should law students and junior attorneys do to enhance their career prospects?

Law firm clients are demanding more services for less billing, are better able to audit the work product and time required to complete the services, and are aware that technology is driving down the necessity to create legal documents from scratch for many “commoditized” types of assignments. Law firms need to implement technology and develop work flows that are sensitive to the present economic environment. Even basic document review, which has been a reliable generator of revenue for many firms, is subject to technology enhancements that are sharply reducing the number (and hourly rates) of attorneys required for a case.

Junior attorneys will have better job prospects if they enter the work force with a basic level of technological competence and obtain practical skills through prior full-time work experience, internships, clinics, and summer employment.

While clients will no longer pay for associates to learn to practice law, domain expertise will still be important in the future. If possible, junior attorneys should utilize knowledge from other domains (and prior careers) to create a niche in their skill sets.  A few examples would include technology innovation (business and patent), entrepreneurship, healthcare, biotech, information management, communications, government contracts, privacy, security, and transnational issues. These types of substantive domains are less likely to be impacted by software that can replace lawyers performing more basic legal functions. I have seen demonstrations of contract document building software that can substantially reduce the time required to draft, review and revise both simple and more complex agreements. This is a good thing for clients, not so much for attorney billings.

Not to be under-appreciated are the practical and ethical requirement for attorneys to have basic skills in technology and communication. These core competencies will allow them to be efficient and more valuable to their firms and clients. Pursuant to the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, “including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology”. Attorneys are daily presented with issues pertaining to social media, communications, security and privacy. Knowledge of how technology interacts with these areas is critical for future success in the legal profession.

To summarize, the practice of law will not disappear anytime soon. However, it is likely that the unbridled growth in the number of new attorneys will rapidly taper off, and the promise of the golden “big law firm” ticket to prestige and riches will be less of a reality for many. The days of just “studying hard,” “showing up,” and “doing well” and are over. Nonetheless, there will still be many opportunities for professional growth and achievement for those who grasp the new legal paradigm and align their skills and expectations accordingly.

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