Recreating Law School

Ah Latin - we love latinI spend a lot of time hanging around CU Law School. I know it’s a strange place to find a venture capitalist and entrepreneurs, but it happens to be the epicenter of entrepreneurial activity at CU Boulder. I wrote a chapter about this in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City explaining why and how CU Law has taken a different approach to the engagement of the of a university and the entrepreneurial community.

Step back and think about it a little. A surprising number of entrepreneurs have legal backgrounds. A legal education is a great grounding in systems thinking, which can be applied to many businesses, especially as their scale up dramatically. And, in a world that needs less lawyers and more entrepreneurs, repurposing some of the brightest non-technical graduate students to be entrepreneurs is a neat idea. See – that’s not so strange.

Phil Weiser, the Dean of the CU Law School, is a good friend. Phil also totally groks entrepreneurship and is aggressively applying it to the vision, the curriculum, and the operations of CU Law. Following are some thoughts of his that recently appeared in an article in the ABA Journal titled Five initiatives that legal education needs.

Just like every other corner of the profession, legal education is grappling with a New Normal that was barely appreciated as recently as four or five years ago.

Even as law schools welcomed incoming classes this year, the mood has changed. And it’s no secret why.

Applications are down nationally for the third year in a row. And larger law firms aresignificantly cutting back on their entry-level hiring. The American Bar Association is also starting to focus on changes to legal education, recently releasing a draft report (PDF) from the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.

Change is happening, and that’s a good thing.

The upside of today’s New Normal is that law schools have the opportunity to develop a new generation of lawyers who are more purposeful than ever before about how to develop and navigate their careers. These graduates will be legal entrepreneurs. By that, I mean lawyers—whether working in government, nonprofits, law firms, consulting firms, or businesses—who take ownership of their career paths and develop the tool kit necessary to add value and succeed wherever they work. Developing legal entrepreneurs, however, requires a commitment to innovation and experimentation that until recently has not been traditionally associated with legal academia.

To underscore the range of emerging innovations needed in legal academia, consider the following five initiatives now taking place in legal education:

1. Build an entrepreneurial mindset. Training law students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset is foundational for the New Normal. The reality is that large law firms are employing fewer and fewer law graduates, and the early interview week model is not what it once was. As such, law schools need to reorient their students’ thinking about their careers. An entrepreneurial mindset is a must in the New Normal, and law students need to heed LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s teachings in The Start-up of You. How law schools will transmit those lessons to a notoriously risk-averse group remains to beseen. But the age of law school as a risk-free option for people who expect a job to be handed to them at the end is over.

2. Challenge employers on entry-level hiring. Challenging employers to think differently about entry-level hiring and summer jobs is a critical to adjusting to the New Normal. The marketplace for legal talent is incredibly traditional, and the resistance of employers to experiment is a formidable challenge to creating new opportunities for recent law school graduates. Most law students would welcome the chance to work at any number of successful law firms or in-house organizations in a temporary capacity over the summer or even upon graduation—even at lower rates than traditional summer associate or associate positions—because such jobs can offer valuable opportunities to build marketable skills and develop important networks, connections, and references. And such opportunities present firms with the chance to use the talents of these students or recent graduates. But a big impediment to developing such an opportunity is that firms often believe that they cannot provide them if they are not prepared to offer a long-term job when the student graduates. A number of law schools are taking this issue head on, such as the Cardozo New Resident Associate Mentor Program and, in Colorado, where both law schools (the University of Colorado and the University of Denver) are collaborating on a Legal Residency program that encourages law firms or other employers to hire a recent graduate for 12 to 18 months, offer a quality experience, and provide apprenticeship outside of the traditional associate track.

3. Compress law school education and couple with experience. Law schools can couple a 2.5 year degree with a quality experience. The opportunity to graduate in 2.5 years, which can be achieved through accelerated schedules that permit saving a semester, is increasingly appealing as tuition costs has risen greatly over the past decade. Law schools encouraging such paths can work with partners like Cisco’s general counsel Mark Chandler, who is welcoming paid interns for seven months at Cisco from June 1st after their second year until the following January, enabling students to graduate not only with less debt, but with more experience.

4. Provide multidisciplinary training. Law schools increasingly are providing their students with multidisciplinary training, including but not limited to key business skills. The New Normal means that “thinking like a lawyer” is not enough; we need lawyers who can “think like clients.” For lawyers to understand their clients, they need to learn their businesses. This concept applies to those working in the public sector as well as the private sector; lawyers with domain knowledge of the fields they are practicing in are simply more likely to succeed than those without such knowledge. This means more nontraditional courses, more interdisciplinary courses, and more “boot camp”-type experiences.

5. Engage with the community. Law schools need to engage with their communities, get to know their success stories, and reverse-engineer them. The reality is that law firm hiring is not coming back, and a core challenge for law schools is to develop nontraditional opportunities—such as ones in business development, compliance, human resources, and public policy—for law school graduates with the right skill sets. The challenge is that developing such partnerships and opportunities is a long game. But the forces that shaped today’s New Normal were a long time coming; the actions that will enable law schools to adapt will take time as well.

Experimentation, innovation, and the New Normal. In 2008, most law school deans were living in the Old Normal. Today, all law school deans know that they are in a New Normal. The reality is that the shaping of today’s environment took place over a long period of time, even if we did realize it while it was happening. As such, developing a new model will not happen overnight. But momentum is building. The broad outlines of the New Normal—the need for a more entrepreneurial mindset, more community engagement, more multidisciplinary training, and new (and nontraditional) employment pathways—are now taking shape through experiments all over the country. The exciting part of this emerging paradigm is that it is still very much a work in progress, and law schools have the opportunity to develop creative partnerships and innovations to support our students in a changing and challenging environment.

  • I agree with you, Brad. And it’s great to see you focus on this topic. The law is incredibly important. It is enmeshed in every aspect of our lives. Getting entrepreneurship more present in law school will at least help increase the likelihood that the law and legal practice will innovate, which is something it desperately needs.

    I went to law school with the goal of getting a legal background to help me in starting and running a business. I feel like I gained a helpful skill set and confidence, but I also came out with an appreciation of the opportunity before us to innovate the law.

    One initiative you didn’t mention is LawWithoutWalls. The three year old program is essentially a world-wide community of law students, law professors, legal practitioners, entrepreneurs, and others whose focus is on innovating legal education and practice. The primary forum is a semester-long program held once a year where student participants from different schools/countries form teams (usually 4-5 students, 12 teams) and work on a project related to innovating and solving problems in legal education and practice. I was a Student Participant (and a current Advisor), and it was really a great experience. The whole community actually met twice during the program, in Switzerland and in Miami (with students coming from China, South America, all over the US, etc.), for the initial meeting and for a “demo day” of sorts.

    My only gripe with Law Without Walls was that it didn’t go far enough in pushing us to actually go forward and do something with our projects in the real world. It was a little disheartening to hear fellow participants talk about their hopes and plans of getting a traditional legal job. Of course, there are financial pressures and the inability of many students to take risks because of the need to pay back loans (good luck finding these “traditional jobs” though). But it would be nice for there to be a real change of attitude in law school—for there to be an “entrepreneurial mindset,” as you put it. To put students into school with the goal of actually innovating the law or with the goal of coming out with a project they are actually going to execute. Short of that, it’s at least good to make students aware of the opportunity before them.

    And I would love to see an accelerator focused on the legal vertical!

    • Thx for the comment – I don’t know LawWithoutWalls but I’ll look into it.

      Interestingly, at Techstars, I don’t think we’ve run into anyone yet that wants to do a “Powered By Techstars” focused on the legal vertical.

      Over the years we’ve made several investments here due to my partner Jason Mendelson’s experience as a lawyer (and desire to change a bunch of things) – Stratify, Brightleaf, and now Modria.

  • Chris White

    Great article. As a current law student, I think it is vital for law students to think outside the box when it comes to potential career paths. In your post you mentioned “How law schools will transmit those lessons to a notoriously risk-averse group remains to be seen.” I am curious, do you have any thoughts on how to transmit an entrepreneurial mindset to a risk averse person or group of people?

    • My advice: don’t. I’ve seen risk-adverse people live the entrepreneur lifestyle. (Entrepreneur marries risk-adverse person) It makes them supremely unhappy.

      • Agree with the broad notion, but not the specific advice. Some love it, some hate it. Often they don’t know which until they are exposed to it. So it’s valuable to be exposed to it.

    • Step 1 is to help them understand it. If they understand it, they can decide if they like it. Some will, some won’t.

  • Sheila Lamont

    As a recovering attorney, I totally agree with your statement that we’re in a world that needs less lawyers and more entrepreneurs! Great thoughts from Phil Weiser (thanks for sharing them!) – I hope all law school deans follow his exceptional lead!

    • He’s really ahead of the curve as a leader, but he’s got a big voice so others are listening.

  • Gerhard Apfelthaler

    I know very little about law schools, but as the Dean of a business school at a small, private university and someone who has worked at business schools in Europe (some of which I have started myself), I can only say that we could easily replace “law” with “business” in your post, and it would still make perfect sense. Moving from Europe to the US, my biggest surprise was how out of touch many US business schools are with businesses. There is a dangerous lack of curricular innovation, an emphasis on research that places rigor over relevance, a reliance on professors who have never set a foot into the business world, the selfish interest of accreditation bodies to preserve the status quo, and regulators who believe that effectiveness can be measured in credit hours – all contribute to what will sooner or later end in a sever crisis for business schools and for the economy. Lots to do, I guess…

    • Indeed – lots to do! And well said.

  • Great points and well said Brad! As someone who has traveled the non-traditional path starting with Yale Law, these points resonate well.

  • Nice post – Same can be said for Medical School. Here is a post you and your readers may enjoy entitled: “Law and Innovation – Why Lawyers Need To Be More Like A Bougainvillea”

  • In the old days, a law degree was a good path to entrepreneurship. The Lightbank guys in Chicago met at Michigan Law, and there are other stories of entrepreneurial lawyers. Had a fellow HPA member (who is an entrepreneurial lawyer) tell me today he would advise Engineering undergrad followed by an MBA to become a true entrepreneurial thinker.