In the 143 years since Christopher Columbus Langdell pioneered the case method at Harvard Law School, legal education and the legal profession have remained virtually unchanged. Economic troubles have come and gone. Wars have been fought and won. And yet, law schools and the profession have carried on, status quo ante.
But now, not. Beginning in the recession of 2007, thousands of lawyers have lost their jobs. And there will be a traditional lawyer’s job for only about half of the 44,000 students who will graduate this year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the market will demand only 22,000 net lawyer jobs per year over the next decade.
On the law firm front, “we’re not going to see the death of Biglaw, as some have prophesied, but we’re not getting a return to 2007 either. Instead, we’re seeing the accentuation of macro-level forces that began before the crash, and these forces are reshaping the global market for legal services. Law firms must adapt to the new reality.” (Professor David Wilkins, Director of the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, Above The Law, 5/10/13)
So what is to be done? Some say legal education needs a complete transformation—two years rather than three, a clinical or apprentice third year, lower tuition, fewer law schools. Perhaps—we leave that debate, and the wrenching institutional changes it may bring, to the law schools and the ABA—but in the meantime the lawyers of tomorrow need to be able to do more than read books (even e-books) and do legal research online (even with the newest and best search and analysis tools).
To remain relevant, lawyers must combine their legal expertise with technological know-how. It won’t come without changes in legal training, though. The Socratic method is still a marvel, but it doesn’t touch the digital domain. Proof? Since 2005, the “other legal services” employment segment has experienced double-digit growth year over year while traditional legal employment has shrunk.
Not only are today’s lawyers faced with changing technology, but also with the new environment these changes create. Professor Wilkins catalogs some of the new pressures law firms are encountering: value-based fees (steady erosion of the billable hour), legal process outsourcing, alternative legal providers offering comprehensive managed services. “To succeed, law firms will need to pay greater attention to the needs of their clients. There’s currently a gap between law firm and in-house perceptions of what constitutes good client service.” (Above the Law, 5/10/13)
Oliver Goodenough, who established the Center for Legal Innovation at Vermont Law School says, “The law is shaped by the technology that supports it. One hundred years ago, we developed the case method because of a technological innovation of the time—the spread of cheap, mechanized printing—that subsequently influenced the way we argue about law in court, how we approach scholarship, and the very conceptual foundation of the American justice system. I believe there is significant economic opportunity and creativity to be unleashed when rules and laws exist in ways that reflect actually how we work today.”
Wilkins and Goodenough are not alone. Daniel Martin Katz of Michigan State University Law School, and Co-Director of ReInvent Law, identifies a skills mismatch between what today’s market demands and what young lawyers are trained to do. In his keynote at the Stanford CodeX FutureLaw Conference, Katz called for an end to the “age of mimicry.”
“Law schools,” says Katz, “should stop aspiring to be the next Harvard or Yale and approach the legal education process from an entirely different angle. Substantive legal expertise is not enough for the lawyers of the future. These nimble creatures must be trained to perform the traditional legal tasks and responsibilities, but also to incorporate information technology, problem solving and project management into their practice.”
Katz calls for a new model, the “MIT School of Law.” Math will be required. It will include classes like legal analytics, electronic discovery, virtual law practice, quantitative methods for lawyers, computer programming for lawyers and artificial intelligence and law. It will be hard.
Wilkins also suggests changing the current legal education model. “If law schools want to remain relevant and viable, they will have to shift towards preparing their students for practical workplace success.” (Above the Law, 5/10/13)
There are other technology pioneers among law schools—Brigham Young, Chicago-Kent, Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Indiana, McGeorge, Miami, New York, Suffolk—and a comprehensive list is being gathered by the ABA eLawyering Task Force.
So what’s the holdup? If the future for traditional legal practitioners is so bleak, why aren’t more schools and firms jumping to embrace new technology and new ideas? Katz says it’s a “delivery of services” challenge. Yes, it is certainly a challenge, but resistance is futile. The sooner law schools embrace the already arrived future, the sooner their graduates will find jobs. The sooner law firms hustle themselves into the present, the sooner their clients will be happy.
“Developing these types of expert systems is also a great learning experience – kind of a Socratic method on steroids, only self-taught. In order to create these programs, students have to consider all of these possibilities themselves. There’s no way to learn a law or regulation better than to climb inside it and spend four straight months with it – and that’s what this project forced students to do. It’s ironic that programming a machine teaches students to think like lawyers—but it does. And it’s that ability to consider every aspect of a case, break it down and quickly make decisions that builds the kind of judgment that sets lawyers apart from form fillers and will save us from extinction.” (MyShingle.com 4/18/13)
Neota Logic collaborated with Professor Tanina Rostain and Assistant Professor Roger Skalbeck at Georgetown on their Technology, Innovation & Law Practice course, and worked with the student teams building expert systems using our Neota Logic Server.