There’s been a lot of public and private handwringing within the legal establishment in recent years.
There’s anxiety — and outrage — over the spiraling cost of legal education and the diminishing opportunities and salaries for recent law school grads.
And there’s no small dissatisfaction with the ability of those grads to actually practice the law.
Couple that with the downsizing of major law firms and the outsourcing of much of the grunt work of the legal profession to machines and foreign labour, and you have a true crisis of faith.
But the challenges facing us are no different from those facing many other contemporary industries. Email and other electronic communications are killing the post office. Amazon has changed how we shop for just about everything, with ominous implications for mum and pop stores and big box retailers alike.
We daily watch the struggles of legacy airlines to find a profitable business model, struggles the Big Three carmakers almost didn’t survive. Why should the legal industry be absolved of having to respond to change? What makes lawyers better than cobblers, blacksmiths or record store owners?
To respond to this challenge, we can’t simply change what we didn’t like about our own legal education. We have to think long and hard about how to prepare the next generation of lawyers for a future that is protean, and therefore unknowable. And while that’s a daunting challenge, it’s not an impossible one.
Computer science reinvents itself every five years. The best design, engineering and medical schools live on the farthest edge of their knowledge. Business curricula are constantly evolving. Law schools can surely do the same.
You can already see a way forward in England and Australia, where lawyers are applying data mining techniques to contracts much the same way Sabermetrics mines data on hitting and fielding in baseball. By evaluating and comparing the context and parameters of different kinds of contracts, they can develop templates for almost any situation, effectively automating that process — and making it much less expensive — for businesses and individuals who need a contract written.
There’s no reason we can’t similarly mine decisions made in courts and non-judicial forums to make recommendations for settlements. And data mining in the form of word searches and algorithms is replacing the document reviews that used to be standard work for thousands of associates.
While the use of technology to make some forms of legal work more efficient will mean certain kinds of legal jobs go away, it also creates new opportunities for lawyers. Those opportunities include acting as a bridge between the worlds of business and law and serving as being ethicists who can help institutions of all kinds determine the best courses of action for their long-term fiscal AND social stability.
Lawyers may increasingly be asked to act as compliance officers and project managers who help clients develop products and processes that are both profitable and in keeping with evolving laws and regulations. This project management function is particularly important as the practice of law shifts from a focus on clients to a focus on projects.
But the truth is, we have no idea what the legal landscape will look like in 10, 20 or 50 years. So we must train lawyers who can deal with and adapt to ambiguity and bring order to ambiguous situations. That means exposing law students to as many permutations of legal practice as possible, something Northeastern University School of Law has been doing for 45 years. By alternating terms of classroom study with terms of full-time employment in courts, law firms, NGOs, social service agencies and other institutions where the law comes into play, we provide our students with an iterative, immersive experience that is thoroughly integrated into the classroom curriculum.
That experience prepares our students to think, adapt and innovate in ways that a more rigid and dogmatic adherence to case law simply wouldn’t allow. We’ve found it to be an effective approach for preparing our students for the challenges and opportunities ahead. But it’s only one solution.
To justify our existence — and our price tag — we and our peers must be every bit as innovative and entrepreneurial as we expect our students to be.
Luke Bierman is Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.
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