The Future of Law Schools: How Best to Train the 21st Century Lawyer

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Executive Events, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — While the public perception of legal education is one of stagnation in the post-financial crisis era, many law schools have taken action. They’re propelled not only by declining law school applications but also by a palpable and undeniable shift in market demand. The change is trifold and interconnected: Law firm clients continue to ramp up expectations from attorneys, forcing firms to rethink the skills most valuable in today’s law firm and retooling what they look for in incoming associates.

To that end, a panel at the recent The Future of Law Schools conference, hosted by Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute and Georgetown University Law Center, explored strategies for training the 21st century lawyer and forging public-private partnerships to foster skills needed in today’s legal market.

The panel, titled Training the 21st Century Lawyer: Envisioning a Public-Private Alliance, was moderated by Katie Walter, director of marketing for the government and academic sectors at Thomson Reuters Legal. Panelists cited several examples of what was happening at their law schools and law firms.

Ted Ruger, Dean & Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said at his school, for example, the pivot in demand has driven an interdisciplinary approach to legal education.

In other words, the feedback from law firms and general counsel is that clients are increasingly seeking a strategic business partner in attorneys and are not willing to pay for “faceless associates.” That means each member of the legal team — no matter how junior — needs to be a strategic contributor to the matter they’re working on.


This shift also has permeated his method of interviewing new hires — now, the emphasis is not only on legal skills and academic achievement, but also on interpersonal skills and an open-mindedness with respect to business development and marketing.


Thus, it may come as no surprise, that Penn’s closest partner is the Wharton School of Business, because unlike most JD programs, Wharton’s teaching emphasizes teamwork and collaboration, Ruger said. Currently, more than half of the JD students at Penn also receive a certificate from Wharton, he added, and this helps with job placement as well as performance throughout their careers.

The changing ecosystem is an everyday reality for Tim Henderson, Chief Recruitment & Professional Development Officer at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. In his role, Henderson said he focuses on recruiting and grooming “market-ready candidates.” As clients become increasingly demanding — not only in terms of budgets, but also in terms of expectations — they are reluctant to pay for work from first- and second-year associates, Henderson noted.

Accordingly, professional development at the firm has changed “dramatically,” he said, adding that when he started with Finnegan in 2011, the firm’s professional development mindset was largely focused on being “the best practitioner possible, and clients will come in the door.” That has been transformed in the last six years, he explained, and the professional development efforts now integrate business development, marketing and client management.

This shift also has permeated his method of interviewing new hires — now, the emphasis is not only on legal skills and academic achievement, but also on interpersonal skills and an open-mindedness with respect to business development and marketing.

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A panel at the recent “Future of Law Schools” conference explored strategies for training the 21st century lawyer and forging public-private partnerships.

Across the country at the University of California-Hastings, Alice Armitage, Associate Professor & Director of Startup Legal Garage at the Institute for Innovation Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, is taking a different approach to arming law students with experiential skills. A former practitioner, Armitage founded the Legal Startup Garage, an experiential program that pairs UC Hastings law students with law firm attorneys in the Bay Area to service early-stage startup clients. Students mostly work on corporate transactional matters, but sometimes they have a hand in intellectual property work.

It’s a win-win for the clients, the students and the attorneys, Armitage said. The law firm attorneys have an opportunity for business development with budding companies, while the students gain hands-on experience with client service and get to work with practicing attorneys. The experience lets students generally build confidence and a sense of preparedness in these aspects of the law. The year-long program also has a “self-reflection” component that allows students to examine what may have gone wrong or what they would have done differently.

Meanwhile, William Byrnes, Executive Professor of Law & Associate Dean for Special Projects at Texas A&M University School of Law, is designing student experiences that marry technology and academic-private partnerships. Byrnes said his goal is to embed educational programs into companies, government and law firms by leveraging technology, thereby removing the geographic barrier to experiential opportunities. To that end, Byrnes said he spends time talking to stakeholders outside academia to discern what they need in the market from law school graduates; he then designs programs to reflect that.

As the panelists demonstrated, the current environment presents ample opportunity for innovation in legal education, even as the trailblazers face strong headwinds. As Armitage pointed out, lawyers are trained to look at precedent, making them “backward-looking” by default. The key, she said, is finding a way to “remold” that mindset.


Listen to “A Law School Performance Report Card: A Conversation about Education, Rankings, and What Matters in Entry-Level Hiring”, the final panel of the recent Future of Law Schools conference.