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Who Will Train Tomorrow's Lawyers and How Will They Learn?

The legal industry is an ecosystem; there’s an inter-dependency between and among its elements. So, for example, when clients sneeze, law firms catch a cold; law schools get the flu; and law students contract pneumonia. A recent American Lawyer article, “Pay for Associate Hours? More Companies Say'No Thanks'” underscored the interdependency--and misalignment-- of law's stakeholders. It quoted from a speech by Mark Smolik, the general counsel of DHL Supply Chain Americas, saying he would no longer subsidize on-the-job-training of law firm associates. That’s an industry secret everyone knows, but it is newsworthy when the GC of a major corporation says it publicly.

Mr. Smolik’s remark extends beyond his department’s policy on outsourcing work to young lawyers; it is an indictment of the Academy for its failure to produce practice-ready graduates with required skillsets and a swipe at law firms for their failure to more fully invest in associate training to drive client value. The GC’s comment provides context for the vast migration of work from law firms to in-house departments and service providers. It’s one reason—together with the failure of law schools and firms to distinguish between legal ‘practice’ and ‘the business of delivering legal services’-- why corporate legal departments—law’s largest consumers—are also its leading providers.

A recent ALM Intelligence Report noted that 73% of legal work is now performed in-house—much of it by legal operations (‘legal ops’) teams that leverage technology and process to strip out—disaggregate—high volume, low value, repetitive ‘practice’ tasks that were once handled by law firms with a brute force, labor intensive approach that suited their economic model. Now, in the digital age, many of those tasks are automated, delivered as products—not services-- or performed by lower-priced human resources and/or by machines. This is today’s legal marketplace. It is foreign to most law school faculty who are detached from the rapidly changing marketplace. Fortunately for law students and those already in the marketplace, there are efficient, accessible, cost-effective, and just-in-time learning tools available to fill knowledge gaps and to teach new skills.

This is the issue that Mark Smolik was talking about: who will train lawyers for today’s marketplace? Same question for the number of practicing lawyers in the early and middle stages of their careers caught in law’s transition from a labor-intensive ‘just lawyers’ delivery model to a digitized, interdisciplinary one where lawyers work side-by-side with other professionals and paraprofessionals in a tech and process-enabled delivery model. How will they acquire the ‘legal re-education' required to compete? Continuing Legal Education (‘CLE’) is little more than a box-ticking exercise that falls far short of what’s needed. Law schools are too expensive and constrained by antediluvian faculty notions that to change the current pedagogical approach would be to dilute—if not bastardize—the profession.

Most Law Schools are Still Focused on ‘Teaching the Law’—That Alone Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

Law school curricula, faculties, delivery models, and cost need a reboot. The gap between what the marketplace demands and the competencies most law grads possess—not to mention the amount of their educational debt—is staggering. There are several reasons to explain the delta: (1) the detachment of most law schools from the marketplace; (2) tenured faculty’s characteristic absence of practice experience; (3) a ‘business as usual’ approach to legal education when that no longer cuts it; (4) a widespread misconception—especially among top-tier law schools-- that the conveyor belt that carried a majority of graduates into large firms is balky but not about to break; (5) failure to grasp that legal ‘practice’ is shrinking while legal operations and the business of law is expanding—law schools teach almost exclusively for practice careers; and (6) failure to provide more full-time faculty positions for those with practice experience and different backgrounds than the pedigree-centric, narrowly tailored Law Review, clerkship, and academic career paths of most tenured faculty.

The legal Academy might look to medical academics where faculty must demonstrate excellence in practice, (relevant) research, and teaching. True, a handful of law schools—Northwestern, Stanford, and Michigan State come to mind—are taking steps to narrow the divide between their curricula and the new marketplace. But most are preparing students for a legal marketplace that is finally witnessing the disruption that other industries—including professional services—have experienced due to the confluence of the global financial crisis, the acceleration of technological advances, and globalization. A new buy-sell dynamic has taken hold, and legal delivery is experiencing a major overhaul involving by whom, how, from what structure, and at what cost ‘legal’ services are delivered. Most law schools and firms have yet to read the memo, much less to take proactive steps in response.

Legal Education Parallels Law Firms—Each Needs to Embrace New Delivery Models

Law schools, like law firms, have been slow to embrace new delivery models. For decades, the two have had a symbiotic relationship—law schools taught students to ‘think like a lawyer’ and law firms trained them--at client expense—to be a lawyer. Those days—as DHL’s GC proclaimed—are over. Law schools are under increased scrutiny and pressure to place students in jobs that are beginning to vanish. That’s because graduates are neither practice ready nor possess a new suite of skills that include: understanding how technology is applied to streamline legal delivery, business, data analytics, and a suite of competencies that support the delivery of legal services—the business of law. Legal practice—core differentiated knowledge, skills, and professional judgment possessed by a relatively small percentage of lawyers-- is shrinking. Legal delivery—the products, tasks, competencies, technology, process, and functions that leverage and support it—is expanding. Even elite law schools must be mindful and prepare students for the new marketplace, because relative few of their grads will have ‘practice’ careers. Many will use their ‘knowledge of law’ not to engage in traditional client practice but to fill positions in the business of law where that knowledge can best be leveraged and used to enhance delivery.

There Are New Accessible, Agile, and Cost-Effective Educational Tools Available

Digital learning provides an excellent opportunity to narrow the experience and skill gaps for law students and practitioners. Digital learning is front and center in the minds of CEO’s and HR leaders; it is their #2 priority. The 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends research discovered that 83% of companies rate this issue important and 54% rate it urgent-- up 11% from last year. Companies realize that with automation, business transformation, and skill obsolescence/relevance, delivering on a compelling, digital learning platform is critical to business success.

Hotshot is doing just that for the legal industry. The company provides just-in-time high quality videos and related content to law students and practicing lawyers. It enables them to acquire the legal, business, and tech skills that they need to have -- and uses proven concepts of digital learning deployed in other industries to help make it happen. This includes the ‘just in time’ element to support the learner exactly where and when the information is needed as well as helping schools, firms, corporate legal departments, and service providers to create and implement engaging and effective formal training programs. The company's ‘flipped classroom’ approach is a move away from lectures to programs that use blended learning techniques that are especially favored by millennials—as well as hundreds of millions that watch YouTube content.

Hotshot’s Founders, Chris Wedgeworth and Ian Nelson, are former leaders of Practical Law Company. The pair saw the success of digital learning in people’s personal and professional lives and its need in the legal space. Hotshot is not a substitute for law school or mentoring; it’s a supplement that is especially timely because of the ‘gaps’ in legal education, the scarcity of mentorship, as well as the ease of access and interactive feel of their videos. Users can select from a growing catalogue of topics that cover both legal and business skills, such as accounting and finance for lawyers and the basics of M&A.

Hotshot’s customers cite ease of access, ‘bite-sized’ videos, and high-quality content as drivers of the company’s market success. The company is already working with a growing list of Am Law 200 firms, law schools and regional and international firms. It has plans to expand the ‘practice’ catalogue and add ‘business of law’ videos in data analytics, project management, and collaboration among other competencies. Hotshot’s offering and delivery mechanism is emblematic of a shift in the educational paradigm.


New educational tools—and delivery models—are a quick, cost-effective, accessible way to align the competencies and skillsets of newly-minted and early-mid stage lawyers with a rapidly changing marketplace. Law schools will, of course, continue to play a key role in that process. To be effective, they must better understand the marketplace--especially consumer expectations--and recognize that legal delivery is not simply about lawyers anymore. Nor is imbuing students with ‘knowledge of the law’—without more—a sufficient output for law schools. Critical thinking remains a seminal skill for lawyers but, without more, is insufficient training for the new legal marketplace.


More from Mark A. Cohen you'll find in our Thought Leader Section and via the links below. Articles by Mark are also published at Forbes and on his platform LegalMosaic.

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