The New Normal and the Challenge to Legal Education Roundtable

November 7, 2013

The traditional model for law schools encouraged students to look for law firm positions upon graduation, believing that the firms would both train law school graduates and provide them with the necessary professional skills to thrive.  Until recently, this partnership between law schools and law firms provided a reliable path for many students. With the Great Recession, and the sharp declines in traditional law firm hiring in today’s New Normal, this has all changed.

To jump-start the conversation on what law schools should do in today’s New Normal, the University of Colorado Law School held the New Normal and the Challenge to Legal Education Roundtable, following chataum house rules. The roundtable brought together a group of thought leaders to discuss the key competencies that students need to develop to find employment opportunities (including often non-traditional ones) as well as the best strategies to develop, measure, and screen for those competencies.  The discussion was held on October 8, 2013 and included 35 participants from a variety of backgrounds, representing 20 law firms, law schools, and companies from across the nation.  

In today’s environment, law schools are facing increasing pressure to develop a wide range of competencies in their students to prepare them for the New Normal—covering aptitudes from legal research and writing to project management and negotiation. If law schools better understand these competencies, they can set benchmarks for and, maybe more importantly, provide guideposts to help students build self-awareness of where they are in their professional development, emphasizing that law school is just a part of a continuum of learning.

Many around the table stressed that there are some important competencies related to attitudes and professional outlook, such as entrepreneurial initiative, a learner’s mindset, networking, resilience, and good judgment, which are difficult to teach in law school. On that view, such competencies ought to be screened for during the admissions process and others must be developed elsewhere.

A contrary perspective, offered by Professor Brad Bernthal, is that such competencies—even those that are attitudinal—can be substantially developed during law school. One reason is that law school acts powerfully to teach professional norms.  If these competencies are taught as norms, then students will gravitate toward them as part of forming their professional identity.  Moreover, Bernthal believes that skill-oriented competencies can be enhanced through techniques that incorporate principles of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is a theory of expertise, often associated with scholar Anders Ericsson, that breaks dimensions of work into discrete elements that can be practiced at high levels of intensity, in a regime developed by an expert, with constant feedback.  Traditionally, law schools have failed to train in ways that are consistent with deliberate practice, as feedback is infrequent and skill based competencies are underemphasized.  As law schools go forward, principles of deliberate practice can be incorporated to improve performance skill based competencies such as oral communications, drafting, and even good judgment.   

Whether or not competencies like entrepreneurial initiative and networking can be developed during law school, all participants agreed that work experience plays a critical role in professional development and in building up these competencies.  Students who work before and during law school are able to develop better judgment, an appreciation for how businesses are run, capabilities on how to manage complex projects, and are more purposeful in taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to them.  

Reflecting the importance of work experience, several participants suggested that schools should partner with employers to provide opportunities for students to gain such valuable work experience. Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel, suggested one example of this is Colorado Law’s partnership with Cisco, which gives students the opportunity to be paid interns for seven months at Cisco from June 1 after their second year until the following January.  In addition to paying at normal intern rates, Cisco will donate fall tuition to Colorado Law, enabling the student to graduate with less debt and with more experience.

For many, the New Normal is not that much of a change.  The need to be more entrepreneurial “has been the normal for many law students, myself included, all along. It may be the new normal for the top of the class, but for those in the middle and the bottom of the class, we didn’t have big firm offers and had to figure it out as we went," said Christopher Gaddis, Head of Human Resources at JBS USA Holdings, Inc.

Regardless of degree of changes in the professional, the participants all agreed that today’s New Normal is a world where lawyers need to be prepared to reinvent themselves regularly. Those who will be successful in the new legal market, are, as John Ryan, General Counsel, Level 3 Communications, LLC, said, “Folks who can adapt to change.”

Building on this conversation about today’s New Normal, Colorado Law is planning on holding a conference in the spring of 2014 on Innovation in Legal Education.  If you are interested in getting involved in this effort, please email Colorado Law’s Dean, Phil Weiser at phil.weiser@colorado.edu.