The glossy pages of law school brochures and a healthy dose of sharply dressed and highly compensated legal mavens in pop culture is enough to convince many college students to jump on the LSAT bandwagon and sign up for an additional $200K in student loans. But, is law school really preparing students for the reality of practicing law in the 21st century? Does reality for law students live up to the hype?
Truth, lies, and statistics
For many aspiring law students, the allure of law school lays in the numbers. Specifically, the 80-90% employment rate of graduates and the staggeringly high salaries north of $190,000 for first-year attorneys in Big Law. But when you unpack the statistics, some major discrepancies arise. Namely, even at the very top law schools, less than 5% of their graduating classes landed a role in Big Law. In fact, only 63.8% of graduating law students are even able to secure a job that requires a law license following graduation.
Several recent lawsuits have called into question the efficacy of the employment rates law schools use to lure students. Some schools included part-time Starbucks baristas in the same category as law students when reporting their employment rates, while others frequently accept and graduate students who have zero chance of passing the bar (or more accurately had an 89% chance of failing).
When reporting on three for-profit law schools owned by a corporation, the Atlantic noted that: “a single year’s graduating class from these three schools was likely carrying about a quarter of a billion dollars of high-interest, non-dischargeable, taxpayer-backed debt.” And of these 1191 students, over a third were unemployed or working part time for the school nine months after graduation!
I could write an entire book about the predatory nature of higher education and the paralyzing debt many incur as a result, but I will save that for another day. Let's look instead at the promises of law school in particular and how it leaves many legal practitioners ill-prepared for the realities of practicing law in a digital era.
What went wrong?
Formal legal education dates back well over a millennia and a half ago to the law school of Berytus in Beirut and has changed shockingly little in the centuries since. Founded to educate a stable of jurists to advise the Roman Emperor, who also served as chief magistrate for the empire, the curriculum consisted of analyzing legal treatises and applying them to practical cases with a good dose of Socratic questioning for good measure.
The earliest American law schools, like William and Mary (1779) and Harvard (1817) focused broadly on political theory, classical literature, civics, history, and the economics behind law. All of this changed when Harvard professor Christopher Langdell adopted the Socratic method approach in 1869. In this re-envisioned legal education, students were taught how to discover key issues and apply legal principles as opposed to memorization.
The Langdell-inspired approach is great for teaching an aspiring lawyer how to think like a lawyer, but falls short when it comes to the practical application of law and navigating the new dataverse. While having to respond tof the Socratic case method may be enough to make any law school alum’s palms start to sweat, there is some debate as to whether cross-examining any student about the underlying legal concepts of a case is sufficient to arm them in the real legal world they will face.
In the millennia since the first student attended the law school of Berytus or even since the first student faced a Socratic grilling in the Langdell case method, a lot has changed about society, how humans interact, and the technologies we engage with. And yet little has changed in our approach educating future lawyers.
Mind the gap
What about the lucky students who are able to land a job practicing law or better yet in the rank and file of Big Law associates? While these fresh-faced first year attorneys may not have to worry about missed student loan payments or the prospect of taking a job that doesn’t even require a JD, they do have a new set of worries. Namely how the hell do you actually lawyer?
Law school is a great crash course on critical reasoning, crafting epic outlines, and weathering a barrage of questions when a professor calls on you for a case readout. Unfortunately, these skills translate about as well as if you learned to swim from the safety of dry land never dipping your toe into the water or took a cooking class but were forbidden from ever using a stove. The practical realities of practicing law, the technology that is instrumental in effectively advocating, and even where to look for evidence in a digital world are all foreign to new lawyers fresh out of law school.
This skill gap is widening as new technology is making a class of super lawyers who can find evidence faster, complete tasks more accurately, and deliver better results at a lower cost. New lawyers do not just need to catch up with their predecessors and learn practical realities of law, they need to rapidly adapt and adopt new tech that even their mentors may be accustomed to.
What is an aspiring legal eagle to do?
New tools and tech are fundamentally changing the practice of law, whether in terms of the tools we use to find evidence or the tools and means of communication used by clients, and aspiring legal practitioners cannot simply bury their heads in the sand. Electricity, the assembly line, computers, and most recently the internet all changed how we interact and do business, and the practice of law has followed suit.
For legal practitioners looking to adapt and remain relevant, understanding the new challenges and opportunities posed by emerging technology in the law is of paramount importance. It may seem overwhelming at first, but there is a wealth of information to draw from across a myriad of sources during your legal education and as you continue to develop as a legal practitioner.
Request that your school take advantage of the free support many emerging legal technology companies offer. DISCO for instance has a complimentary legal education program that offers curriculum and access to leading ediscovery technology for law schools and paralegal programs. It is vital that students prepare themselves for the use of technology, including ediscovery — and DISCO for Schools is here to help.
Read the rags
Consult legal technology periodicals and blogs to find out key technology and legal considerations. Creating an RSS feed for AI and the law is also beneficial. If you find a key topic in any of the periodicals, I recommend taking a deeper dive — there is no shame in starting with Google!
Find a dork
There is no need to go it alone. Talk with the people in your network who geek out about this sort of thing, whether that be in-house experts, connections at vendors, or even internet friends, ask them to teach you about how they are seeing technology impact their practice or the law. You can also reach out to people who write on the subject or post about it on LinkedIn, most of us passionate enough to write are happy to take some time to educate people interested in the evolving technical landscape of law. I am happy to serve as your resident dork if all else fails!
Ask your providers
If your company has a certain tool that uses technology you’re reading about often in industry publications, ask the company selling the solution to host a lunch to learn about the state of the industry or how to use and optimize their tools. Most technology providers are passionate about evolving the legal industry and want to help you future-proof your practice.
Learn to speak geek
The phrase “learn to code” has been tossed around the legal space recently, but that view is too myopic. Lawyers do not necessarily need to learn to code or understand the mechanics of AI and its backend functionality to reap the benefits of applying it. Rather, practitioners should focus their legal minds on technology in the same way they would any other issue. Develop enough of an understanding of the various applications of augmented intelligence to ask the right questions and to know when to call in an expert to help navigate its use.
The skills that technology-amplified attorneys are not that different from lawyers of bygone eras:
- Think critically about when technology can accelerate time to evidence
- Strive to understand the options on the market generally
- Have a point of contact who can help you dive deeper
- Learn to issue-spot in the technology space to identify when privacy, ethical considerations, and risk arise.
And most importantly, learn enough to be able to articulate these insights and concerns at a high level with someone on the technology side, to be able to translate from legalese to geek-speak.