This past Friday and Saturday I had the distinct privilege to be invited to attend the Future of Legal Education Conference (Twitter stream #fe3) hosted by Harvard Law School and New York Law School. It was actually an amazing experience because a core group of legal educators came together to share ideas on how to change legal education. Most importantly, it was a stark recognition of the hurdles that need to be cleared in order to effectuate change. As you know, the actual process of changing can be daunting, but the first step to change is recognizing and accepting changes must be made.
Over the past year, proposals from law faculty and technology and legal industry leadership were submitted and 30 were accepted for presentation. There was no competition between schools; it was all collaboration between schools. And future law students are going to be seeing much more of this in the next few years.
The focus was on utilizing online technologies, cost containment, the economy, and the economy’s impact on new graduates. In a nutshell: survival.
The theme of survival was starkly and clearly laid out by one attendee who referenced the Concord Law School model. At $40,000 total for a legal education, ‘if they get accreditation from the ABA, they are going to wipe the floor with us.’ (Dead silence).
The format was simple. Each team was to make a pitch to angel investors (the audience) who had one million ‘attention dollars’ to award after all presentations were made. They were truly forward thinking presentations which focused in large part on the use of technology. The winner was one I can proudly say I backed with $500,000 in attention dollars. It was called Apps 4 Justice - Learning Law by Creating Software - combining student education with Legal Aid and automated legal services/documents (created by law students) for lower income clients. I called it Legal Zoom for the poorest in our country. In essence, technology is introduced to automate legal services (document automation) for those who qualify for legal aid.
Another presenter attacked the costs of law school and the burden students have to bear for legal scholarship. He didn’t get brownie points when he provided supporting documentation that 30 – 50% of tuition is an involuntary fee tacked on to tuition so professors can write scholarship which is becoming increasingly irrelevant to court decisions. The cost of tenure also kept getting referenced but the audience remained quiet. What was presented was an innovative education model – Franklin W. Olin, College of Engineering. There is no tenure and no academic departments. It hinted at the possibility tenure may become a relic down the road as Olin is described as paving the way for the new ‘Ivies’.
There are those who want to fix the model (many were present at this conference). There are many who want to protect the model and their security. But as students walk out with crushing debt – arguably half the tuition to fund increasingly irrelevant scholarship by faculty – something’s got to give.
What further struck me: not once in all the presentations or commentary did a single person (other than myself, of course) say the word ‘solo’. They discussed those who go into ‘Large law firms, corporations, government and pro bono.’ And being in this audience of those who really want to change and recognize the need to change, I sensed something else.
Law schools don’t see those students who go solo as graduates who have failed. They see those who go solo as a reflection of their own failure because they were unable to get them employment. This mindset makes any discussion about solos the proverbial elephant in the room. This mindset has twisted and re-shaped legal education, its offerings, the cost, and the method of delivery. Every institution and program which has been fostered has one universally defined successful and measurable output - getting their student’s employment: ideally – an associate’s job which helps law schools to justify the students’ economic ‘investment’ in law school. The premise that law school’s sole mandate is to get their students ‘employed by another’ disenfranchises a whole segment of student who wants to be their own boss or has no choice but to be their own boss.
Legal education should have one overarching mandate: to educate students sufficiently to serve the legal needs of society. They should not educate and train solely to the path of ‘employee’. They should educate and train for any path which allows their students to serve the legal needs of society. This includes in large part self-employment. Once they do, the elephant in the room will be gone.
Yet, sadly, solos have been walking around carrying the burden of the legal education system’s shame for failing them. Solos have nothing to be ashamed of nor do they have to be defend it. And when someone like myself advocates that the solo option should be presented as a valid and respectable option within law school to those not willing to publicly acknowledge there’s even an issue, there’s always a lot a ‘shifting in the chair’. I’m reminding them of their failure, too.
But to Rick Matasar’s credit (Dean and President of New York Law School), he got it and he got it quick. When presented with an opportunity for a strategic relationship with Solo Practice University® to help his graduates today he grabbed it with both hands. He’s not one for reinventing the wheel when he can start driving now to get where he wants to go. (When I mentioned to another Dean how progressive Rick is, I was told, ‘those who are described as progressive are slow compared to Rick.)
At the conclusion of the Future Ed Conference on Saturday, Dean Matasar announced NYLS has officially formed a strategic relationship with Solo Practice University® to help their students who wish to go solo. (I was also informed that when students read the press release they were “banging down the doors”.)
The numerous dean’s I met this weekend are no slouches either when it comes to recognizing it’s time to help responsibly educate their graduates who are going solo in increasingly larger numbers. When talking one-on-one they all said a significant number of their graduates are going solo. So, there will be more exciting news to announce soon.
If you want to learn more about the Bridges program, and then share with your law school, send your dean and career counselors this link. Help your law school to recognize solo is a valid and respectable option for your law degree and there is a program which can help….today.