Law Schools Today: A Failure of Preparation?
Last week I had a jolting flashback while waiting on a crosswalk at the corner of West 54th and 6th Avenue in New York City. The cold, wet early morning wind - and the memory - hit me like a ton of bricks.
Here’s what hit me while standing on that cold, dark street corner: It has been 30 years –THIRTY YEARS – since that early morning exam.
I’ll never forget the cold, dark February morning when I arrived at Baylor Law School to take a five-hour final exam. Our professor, David Guinn had left us the class before with this admonishment, “Pencils up at 7 a.m. – not a minute later. And be sure to eat a good breakfast – you’ll need it.”
My legal education was a practical one. Baylor Law School prides itself on preparing Texas lawyers to try cases. A Baylor Law diploma is good as gold when it comes to trial readiness - and prepare us they did. Training us with ninja-like agility, the Texas Rules of Civil procedure became our sword and shield.
Thirty years is a long time, and not surprisingly a lot has changed, especially in the preparation a legal education must provide for graduates to have the skills necessary to be useful and productive in the everyday practice of law.
There are no inexpensive trials, and fewer cases than ever are going to trial. At the same time, more than ever the battles are won and lost early, and much has to do with discovery.
Just this week one of our attorney project managers received a call from a client – thanking us for the outstanding discovery work we did for them in a high-stakes International Trade Commission case. Here’s the best part: The attorney client called to tell us that the opposing party voluntarily dismissed their case, largely because of the quality of the pre-trial discovery work we had done. As another of my law professors Louis Muldrow would say, “Now that’s lawyering!”
A lot has changed in the practice of law in the 30 years since I was in law school. But how we prepare our law graduates for success once they become first-year attorneys has not kept pace – to an alarming degree.
For example, one of the reasons I was in New York last week was to attend LegalWeek, an event that brings together thousands of practitioners, scholars, judges, and technology providers to discuss and demonstrate how technology can help meet the needs of lawyers and the clients they serve.
A loud, striking theme ran across discussions in many of the sessions – and side conversations I had over dinners with clients. To be blunt, the consensus was law schools are doing a terrible job preparing their graduates for the practical tasks they’ll be performing most immediately – many of which now require mastering skills in technology, project management, and of course, the eDiscovery process. Trial readiness no longer means the nuts and bolts we learned in Practice Court, but must also include a proficiency with technology tools which we never dreamed of years ago.
“I don’t care if they understand the Magna Carta! I don’t care what their pedigree is – I want these first-year lawyers to come in with some practical skills. Otherwise, they show up and it’s crickets!” said one senior attorney from a national law firm.
The good news is there are a small (and growing) number of law schools who are looking far ahead and embracing and teaching the technology and tools that will have an immediate impact on graduates and the quality of service they provide their clients.
National Jurist recently published a list of the Top 20 Most Innovative Law Schools, recognizing those who excel in the areas of design thinking, entrepreneurship, technology and business, digital tools, access to justice, and practical training. At the top of the list is the Stanford Legal Design Lab which works at the intersection of design, technology, and the law to build a new generation of legal products and services.
With the recent acquisition of EDRM (Electronic Discovery Reference Model), Duke Law is working toward becoming the national leader in eDiscovery study and training.
And the work being done by Gabriel Teninbaum and the power-packed advisory board of Suffolk Law School’s is leading the way to accomplish its mission of leveraging technology and other innovations to improve the practice of law and the delivery of legal services.
The list of innovative law schools is growing – but not quickly enough. The technology tools available to practitioners provide vast opportunity for both access to justice and in huge increases in the quality of representation we can provide to clients. These opportunities demand the same ninja-like proficiency in technology and innovation that we displayed with the Rules of Civil Procedure years ago. Otherwise we’ll commit the worst of offenses – a failure of preparation.
Joey Seeber is CEO of Level 2 Legal Solutions, a Texas-based leading provider of eDiscovery and legal solutions, specializing in managed review, outsourcing, and consulting for law firms and in-house counsel.