Seth Godin, the famous marketing expert, recently wrote a few blog posts about the value of our current public education system in America. Check out his posts here and here.
Born in the 19thcentury, public school was a product of the industrial revolution. Long story short, it was created to churn out obedient workers to keep American factories running at peak performance. It’s not a coincidence that public schools operate much like factories. Do the work you’re told to do by your supervisor (a.k.a. teacher). There will be a regular performance evaluation (a.k.a. tests). You will be promoted and rewarded based on how well you do on those evaluations.
21st century American children are still being educated in this same 19th Century system.
Unfortunately, the 21stcentury economy demands that workers possess different skills. Today, we are living through a very different revolution: the Information Revolution. Hardware, software and the Internet are quickly changing how we live, work, and learn. With the rise of the machine, far fewer Americans work in factories. The service economy is booming. Given the pace of change, there is a pretty good chance that our kids and grandkids will work in jobs and industries that don’t even exist today.
This begs the question: Is the education system we’ve inherited the right system for educating children living and working in the 21stcentury? Godin’s unequivocal answer is no.
We now carry the school and the library in our pocket. You can learn pretty much any subject on any number of devices at all skill levels anytime and anywhere you want. The answer to any question is only a Google search away. If I can learn anything at any time, what is school for? And if school is designed to educate children so they are prepared to work someday, does it make sense to teach 21stcentury children the same way we taught 19thcentury children? Again, the answer would be no.
A new world requires new skills.
This got me thinking. Does the same logic apply to law school? Well, let’s look.
Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, is considered the father of “modern” legal education. Prior to Langdell, legal education consisted of students learning what the law is. Langdell introduced the case method, where students learn how to “think like a lawyer”. He also standardized the first-year curriculum of Contracts, Property, Torts, Criminal Law and Civil Procedure.
Like public school, law school hasn’t changed much in over 125 years. Of course, that wasn’t much of a problem for a legal system that hadn’t changed much in 100+ years.
Enter the Perfect Storm.
In 2008, everything changed. In the face of the global financial crisis, the legal market contracted as client work disappeared, thousands of lawyers were laid off, and firms folded. If that was it, the market might have bounced back, but there was another blow that impacted the business of law: the rise of the Internet and technology.
Like every other profession, computers have made legal work easier, faster, and better. Fewer attorneys are needed to do legal work, if attorneys are needed at all. As we have seen, the rise of e-Discovery means those legal “factory” jobs aren’t coming back.
We are at the dawn of a new era as legal technology begins to permeate the profession. Times are changing. We are also facing monumental challenges whose answers may upend the entire legal system.
- How do you overhaul an outdated, underfunded, overburdened court system?
- How does your firm do more work and bill less for it?
- How does the profession address the needs of the 80% who have legal problems but can’t afford legal services or don’t know they need a lawyer?
- How does the profession endure the retirement of the baby-boomers?
- What does the profession look like if we scrap the outdated, preservationist rules around law firm ownership, attorney marketing, and fee-splitting?
Honestly, does a 19thcentury legal education create modern 21st century attorneys who can address these questions and so many others? (And I will argue that adding a Law Practice Management or Legal Tech course is a Band-Aid on a gushing wound, not real change.)
So I ask you, what is law school for? If law school is designed to train lawyers, do our law schools train lawyers to practice law in the 21stcentury? If not, what changes should be made to ensure that today’s lawyers can help today’s clients? After 16 years of legal practice and 4 years of law firm consulting, the more I think about these questions, it becomes quite clear to me that teaching people to “think like a lawyer” shouldn’t be the heart of legal education.
What say you? If you have an opinion on the topic, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. You can also Tweet at me on Twitter at @lawducate or find me on LinkedIn.
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