While I was at law school, I remember hearing time and time again from junior lawyers that it was not necessary to worry about what electives one took or how much one learned or did not learn during those three years of legal education as “the real learning, unless you are planning on pursuing a career in academia, starts once you enter the workplace.” The focus was on getting the best grades possible, surviving the three years and getting an articling role.
Unfortunately, in many ways, they were right! Even today, much of what a lawyer learns, especially for in-house lawyers, comes from the experiences obtained in the board room, at the negotiation table, within the court system and from working with your business partner in assessing risk.
Today, this model is no longer sustainable. Law students are graduating with substantial debt as a result of skyrocketing tuition over the last few decades. These students are coming into a tight job market, where it is not just difficult to get an articling role but, even if one is secured, there is little to no guarantee that there will be a job at the end of that process. To add insult to injury, most law students are coming out with little to no marketable and practical skills. After sleepwalking through three years of law school, articling becomes the first time that a student is actually expected to start learning the practice of law.
Unfortunately, not all articling roles are made equally, so some law students will emerge after eight months with a solid understanding of the practice of law, while others will have spent these months conducting research and photocopying and come out no further ahead than they were before.
Now, there are some silver linings as universities are starting to make an effort to expand the practical elements of law to students, but a course here and there does not a solid legal education make. So, you may ask, what would you do differently, Fernando, if you were given the ability to start a law school 2.0?
Well, because you asked, these are some of the core skills that I would seek to develop:
- Public speaking skills OK, most students have some experience presenting materials during high school and university, but it is incredible the number of law graduates who are completely terrified of public speaking. There are always programs like Toastmasters that can help supplement this skill gap, but these are usually offered outside of the law school curriculum.
- Technology skills Today, technology is fundamentally changing how lawyers practise law and conduct research. I would ensure that using legal technology tools, learning how to code and becoming familiar with technology would be critical components of the curriculum. Law students should also be taught how to leverage social media tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter and other mediums to market themselves, their brand and to develop a solid network.
- Entrepreneurial skills Many graduates will find themselves starting their own law firm, alone or in association with a few colleagues. Others will seek to use their technology skills to develop outstanding legal tools such as Blue J Legal, ROSS and Kira Systems that are changing how lawyers practise. Law students should be taught the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, so they can hit the ground running upon graduation regardless of what path they choose to pursue.
- Finance and budgeting I am tired of hearing that people go into law school because they are terrible at math. While it may be true for some, it is difficult to make such a sweeping generalization. Nevertheless, I believe teaching law students how to set a legal budget, how to account for and deal with contingencies, setting reserves, how to track spending, etc. is critical, as is being able to read and understand financial statements.
- Project/contract/litigation management skills Managing external counsel, being able to account for the multiple stages of the litigation process and being able to lead and manage a change initiative for the legal department or as part of a team are important responsibilities of lawyers. Law students should be taught the fundamentals of project/contract and litigation management and other related skill sets.
- Co-op Rather than articling once a law student completes their law schooling, I would ensure that a co-op program is provided, where students will be able to work with a not-for-profit, law firm or in-house department for credit for most if not all of the third year. This would eliminate the need for an articling program and will prevent the situation that we all know very well, which is “sleepwalking through the third year.” A good potential model would be something like Ryerson’s LPP program.
- Mentorship I would also develop a mentorship program, where law students are matched with law school alumni from whatever area of legal practice they may be interested in: academic, not-for-profit, in-house, private practice, etc. This is critical, as it will help students develop networks, provide career guidance, etc.
- Social and networking skills Finally, there are important soft skills to be taught. Not all law students are familiar with skills such as knowing how to handle a formal dinner (for example, the BMW rule: bread plate, meal plate and water rule from left to right), although this is critical for on-campus interviews and making an impression on clients. Many students may also not have had previous experience working a room and networking, especially when surrounded by legal and other professionals.
OK, there will still be core classes and law students will still need to learn the fundamentals of tort, contract, constitutional, criminal, property and other courses that are routine in all law schools. However, by incorporating some or all of the points raised above, we are developing “T-shaped lawyers” who will be able to survive and thrive with regard to their career, regardless of which direction it takes them. I am not selfish — I hope that law schools steal as many of these ideas as possible, as at the end of the day, law students are making a tremendous investment of time and money.