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The Dis-Integration of Legal Education


Last week’s post, about “The New Look of Legal Education,” emphasized the ways in which contemporary US legal education strongly resembles the legal education of the last several decades.

In many respects, the core of the current JD program remains tethered to the innovations of Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard in the 1870s:  law taught as an academic discipline, rather than as a professional craft; law taught by full-time faculty members, rather than primarily via part-time teaching offered by members of the bench and bar; admission to law school conditioned on completion of a full undergraduate degree.

This week, I want to play Devil’s advocate, by emphasizing the many ways in which that core is starting to disintegrate — or, rather, dis-integrate — at the edges.  Whether or not the initiatives and innovations I list here add up to a frontal challenge to the three-year professional JD degree, taken together they suggest a number of ways in which the JD may be starting to lose its hegemonic status as required training in law and for a legal career. 

In later posts, I’ll explore each of the items below with a somewhat sharper lens, to see whether in part or in total they add up to anything more than a mish-mash of adaptations and evolution.  Are these warnings of the end of the hegemony of the JD (my suspicion), or modern variations on the usual to-and-fro associated with any long-standing educational service?

I also want to hold for later discussion a much larger, much broader possibility: that my speculating about the end of the hegemony of the JD presages the coming end of “law” itself as the field, discipline, ideology, values, competencies, institutions, and practices that have come to define “the legal profession,” “the legal system,” and “the rule of law” over the last couple of centuries.  It’s not just legal education that has a new look, I hypothesize. Is legal education a canary? Law itself may be the coal mine, in the early stages of being remade. 

Here are some provocative data points:

[1]  New competencies for the new era, focused version:  Law faculty and deans who focus on lawyers’ leadership in society have organized themselves into a potent new advocacy group (i.e., Section) within the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the US law schools’ trade group, the effect of which is likely to lead to leadership as such getting a more powerful seat at the curricular table on a school-by-school basis. Much leadership education in US law schools today is linked to the history of lawyers as elites, in cultural and economic terms, and it therefore draws attention to “leadership” as part of the cluster of topics associated with professional responsibility/ethics education.  A different view of leadership education in law has little if anything to do with law or the legal profession; instead, it builds on leadership education in business schools, as the next step beyond organizational management.

Link:  AALS Section on Leadership

[2]  New competencies for the new era, multi-functional version:  A number of law schools have set up “labs” as teaching spaces, coordinating the education of new lawyers with the education of other professional students in the university and with practicing professionals, including, often, technologists.  These may or may not be law clinics; their focus is not necessarily advocacy or counseling or serving underserved communities or dealing with the public interest.  They may not handle client matters, even though they may acquire problems to work on from “real world” partners. These programs do share an interest in lawyers working with and as designers and innovators, and an interest in intersections among law, technology, and data.

Links:   Brigham Young University LawX, Chicago-Kent College of Law Law Lab, Suffolk Law School Legal Innovation & Technology (LIT) Lab

[3]  Unbundling inside the JD:  Law professors are delivering network-enabled “distance” versions of their courses to JD students at other law schools, for a fee and for academic credit.  In many ways, this is a new version of a very old idea. Free agency for faculty goes back to Bologna and the 12th century. What’s new, today, is that the faculty free agents have agents themselves, for-profit third parties doing the heavy lifting of turning their solo tours-de-force into cash and ensuring that both mechanics and content meet the ABA’s regulatory requirements. Payments are structured so that both the teacher and the “home” institution get compensated. 

Link:  iLaw

[4]  Unbundling after the JD:  Law professors are starting to offer un-credentialed versions of their expertise to non-law professionals, much as faculty at business schools have offered executive education for decades.  Loyola Law School in Los Angeles recently launched an ambitious version of an online law-for-non-lawyers program, called LLX. 

Link:  Loyola LLX

[5]  Unbundling before the JD:  Legal education outside the US is often an undergraduate course of study, rather than a professional degree.  The University of Arizona has built a US version of a similar idea, with its Bachelor of Arts — Law program in U of A’s School of Government and Public Policy. 

Link:  University of Arizona Bachelor of Arts: Law

[6]  Specialized post-JD training, outsourced:  If new lawyers increasingly need to be “T-shaped,” with deep analytic skills and broad, agile talent in areas as diverse as project management, design, quantitative skills, emotional intelligence, and leadership, then few JD programs can provide those, and even fewer can provide them as a suite.  But the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP) can, offering special training to a select corps of JD students at several law schools. IFLP is starting to match “its” grads with expressions of interest from corporate law departments around the US.

Link:  IFLP

[7]  Specialized post-JD training, insourced:  While Netflix disrupts the Hollywood ecosystem by producing as well as streaming video content, it needs a new corps of lawyers trained the Netflix way. Rather than follow the time-honored tradition of simply hiring talented associates from private law firms and putting them directly to work on the same matters, but allowing the lawyers to trade stress for lower income, Netflix done something different. It has built its own, in-house “Production Legal Lab” to train new attorney recruits. Like a law firm, in the sense that it is training junior lawyers to absorb the culture and acquire the maturity to succeed as more responsible players, but with multi-functional training in client-specific needs.  At this point, Netflix appears to be hiring licensed lawyers.  Its training, like any corporate training program (think “Hamburger University” for McDonald’s, or “Apple University” in Cupertino), does not need to pass regulators’ muster.  It does not need to be accredited.  One wonders about what might happen if Netflix or some other company were to decide to educate “their” lawyers from day one. “Netflix” law school, as it were. Right now, unaccredited law schools in California are regarded with enormous suspicion.

Link:  Production Legal Lab

This post just skims the surface of each of these initiatives, where and why they originate, and what they add up to. Stay tuned for more.