Why Innovate? Legal Education Edition

Why innovate?  The NYT piece on revisions to legal education spurred by ABA conversations (“A Call for Drastic Changes in Educating New Lawyers”) made the rounds of our law faculty’s email list this morning.  In the conversation that followed, I tossed in the following:

The NYT story, the ABA, and the whole debate right now really isn’t focused on improving the job market for lawyers, so in a sense I agree with [the] point [that] reforming law schools won’t “improve” the market.

Rather, the debate is about the fact that the market is changing, and changing rapidly. (See, for example, this short piece: http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/losing-the-law-business-cayman-financia-31234/) Law schools are built to supply a market that is disintegrating more or less swiftly: private lawyers counseling and advocating for clients in more-or-less one-to-one ways. (The swiftness is a matter of debate.) The scope of the market under pressure includes not just the giant business law firms but midsize regional firms as well; friends of mine who are established, senior lawyers in mid-sized (100-lawyer) firms are happily exiting for greener business pastures in the LPO (Legal Process Outsourcing) market. The “private lawyering” market won’t go away entirely. But if patterns from other industries with legacy industrial/integrated business models hold true here (think: steel), then more and more of the “commodity” work done by solos, small offices, and junior associates will disappear into the evolving LPO industry, leaving only extremely expensive bespoke lawyering for supremely complex cases and deals, and perhaps a thin bar of criminal and civil courtroom advocates. The profession as a whole seems well on its way to being much smaller, and much less lucrative for a lot of lawyers, than it has been for the last several decades.

So the ABA has no interest in saving law schools from themselves, or saving law schools at all. The ABA just wants some institution to supply the labor force that ABA members think that they need. It’s up to law schools, or individual faculty members, or both, to make themselves relevant.

Law schools don’t exist because they’re the right or best way to educate lawyers; they exist because of a series of historical contingencies framed by the institutions of the practicing bar and of higher education.  Change either one of those things, and stuff happens  Change both of those things, and a lot of stuff happens.  Students of invention and innovation know a ton about this; changes in demand have a lot to do with the pace and direction of innovation and with the institutional dynamics that synthesize disparate kinds of novelty.  I keep waiting for their lessons to enter the discussion about the legal profession in a constructive way. 

Bonus link:  My Faculty Lounge post from last Fall that drew an explicit analogy between legal education and the old integrated steel industry.