What can law schools teach you now?

I recently paged through the Vanderbilt University alumni magazine and ran across a story titled Law 2.0: Vanderbilt Law School Innovates to Stay Ahead. The article provides a nice summary of the practice a law in the years leading up to the Great Recession, the shifts that the economic crisis created, and the efforts to adapt. Little of that, of course, is news at this late date, but several quotes jumped out at me:

  • “Some commentators call this the ‘new normal.’ I call it the ‘post-normal.’ We don’t know what the new normal is yet for law firms, but we know there’s no going back to how it was.” J.B. Ruhl, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Professor of Law at Vanderbilt
  • “The billable hours don’t indicate value at all. The firm that I hire really needs to help me reach a business result, and that business result is not 1,000 hours.” Julie Ortmeier, vice president, general counsel and secretary for Carfax
  • “Succeeding at a law firm today is more about forging an entrepreneurial, business-oriented path than simply executing good legal work.” Andy Bayman, partner at King & Spalding
  • Daniel Reed, CEO of UnitedLex, a global consulting and legal services firm that offers comprehensive technological solutions for law firms, corporations and law schools, believes the technological revolution in law is only just beginning. “If this is a baseball game,” he says, “we are probably still in the first inning of change.”


The article also describes the Program on Law and Innovation, Vanderbilt Law’s response to all of the changes in the legal profession, providing core training in e-discovery, legal project management, law and technology, and legal futurism. Although other programs are not discussed in this article, other schools are also working to identify the skills and new disciplines that law students need to master to be competitive. (See, for example, the regrettably defunct Law School Innovation blog, the Legal Tech & Innovation Concentration at Suffolk University Law School, and the Technology, Innovation, and Law Practice Seminar at Georgetown Law School.)

For those already in practice, so what? While I believe it’s too early to call these new topics and programs required, some programs seem to have been launched at least in part in response to the criticisms about the value of law school and the ease and profitability of entering the practice of law. It would not be surprising to find that new lawyers who have completed them have a leg up if only because taking part in these programs indicates an understanding of the importance of the business of law, which is now a key client focus. You need not adopt the new approaches fully, but failing to be aware of and fluent concerning them may in time mark you as a legal dinosaur—hardly a competitive advantage.

Tracking which topics and programs are successful also allows you to make a call about legal fads versus legal futures. When you see the basis for program initiation and the response, you have an opportunity to be an early adopter of the trends that will speak most directly to your clients.

And if you’re feeling off the hook because you don’t work in a large firm—not so fast; small firm practitioners may have a better opportunity to innovate simply because you usually have to cut through less red tape to implement new ideas.

Here’s the bottom line: you need not go back to law school to learn about today’s innovations, but you can’t afford to quit studying.

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