Begin here. Then read this.
Despite the many flaws of law schools today, and despite naivete, ignorance, and obstinacy on the parts of schools, faculty, law firms, and practicing lawyers, I’m optimistic about the future. Why? Because I look at the large number of things in flux today, even looking only and specifically at law practice and legal education, and my story-oriented interpretation is that somethings (plural) are starting to shake loose. The scriptwriters, as they say, have given us a lot of plot points to chew on. There is evidence of instability, in small and maybe large respects, and the instability is resonating more powerfully than it has in the past. My optimism is intuitive: I’m optimistic that we may be able to decipher the instability, decode its sources and anticipate its payoffs, and plan and respond to it in ways that eventually produce great results. Like Westley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride, we may get through the Fire Swamp.
Evolutionary (or adaptive) professionalism.
Technological change, shifting financial markets, expanding and contracting labor markets, fluid trade patterns – the legal profession has seen these before, and it’s seeing related things now. The values and principles that define law, lawyers, and the profession are durable and transcend the details of specific organizational forms and educational pathways. Law schools today and law practice organizations should steer into the skid, so to speak, as they have learned to do in the past. That means accommodating new technologies and modes of education and practice into well-established pathways to professional excellence and community and client service. Innovation and disruption will come, as they should, but they lead to legal worlds that look slightly different tomorrow compared to how they look today.
If that’s your story of law and legal education, then its central strategic implication is pretty simple. You don’t need to do much except carry on, ride out the tough times and celebrate the good times. There is little need to lead. Be as distinctive as you must to maintain your competitive position. But in the spirit of E.M. Forster, only respond.
This is the third and final installment of a response to a recent Forbes.com essay from Mark Cohen about the present and future and future of legal education. Mark’s essay is “Post-Pandemic Legal Education.” I posted a quick hot take as Legal Education’s Waterloo, dove in more deeply with Legal Education’s Waterloo: Urgency, and jumped to the end of the story in Legal Education’s Waterloo: The End Game. This is the promised middle piece, on mechanics of getting wherever we are now to wherever it is that we might end up. If you’re willing to focus on the big picture and on how the big picture influences the smaller things (such as: what should I be doing right now?), then this is probably the most important of the three.
It’s so important, at least to me, that it’s longer than either of the first two installments. Much longer. I had to break it into three parts of its own. This is the first.
TL/DR version: Strap in. Change is going to be messy, maybe ugly, and no one has a game plan for it or for you – practitioners, judges, academics, students and new graduates, entrepreneurs. Least of all me. It’s like the fire swamp, from The Princess Bride. Survive it? You’re only skeptical because no one ever has.
Here is the case that I’ve made so far:
This is the second part of a promised three-part response to Mark Cohen’s recent Forbes.com essay (“Post-Pandemic Legal Education”) about what confronts legal education today and what awaits it in the future. My initial hot take appeared here, as Legal Education’s Waterloo. My first substantive reaction, Legal Education’s Waterloo: Urgency, agreed with the premise that US legal education confronts immense challenges, but it focused on cultural prompts rather than financial ones as likely drivers of change. Those prompts consist of intersections among law schools, law students, and markets for lawyers. What’s at stake isn’t merely law schools’ ability to feed the market for lawyers but all lawyers’ interest in how we train the legal experts of the future. The law will be in their hands.
This second substantive comment jumps to the end, evaluating Mark Cohen’s vision of the likely future and giving it some important context. The final part of the response is the trickiest, or messiest, which is why it’s being held for last: how do we all get from where we are now to wherever it is that we’re going?
In Legal Education’s Waterloo, I promised a longer comment on an excellent recent provocation in Forbes.com by Mark Cohen, concerning what US law schools are doing, are not doing, and should be doing with respect to training new lawyers for impactful future careers. The longer comment comes in three parts. One has to do the urgency of change. That’s this part. Two, yet to come, will deal with a vision of what legal education likely looks like in some future, better world. Three, also in the future, will talk about how legal education gets from where it is today to where it is likely to go, either willingly or unwillingly.
On One and Two, I mostly agree with Mark. Change is urgent, and the future doesn’t look too much like the present. On those points, I want to add some nuance and re-characterization, because the world looks different when you’re on the inside. If you’re trying to persuade insiders to change their ways (which may or may not be the goal of the Forbes piece), then it can be helpful to see things as they do. The outside view is important, too, but it’s probably best to blend the two.
Three is the most complicated, which is why it’s last.