Law school as most of us know it is doomed. Law school is doomed not because law schools fail to prepare students to become lawyers, but precisely because law schools, however badly and however anachronistically, train lawyers. Lawyers have been for centuries synonymous with the delivery of legal services, but that day is ending.
Already today, what might have been part of legal services are being delivered by non-lawyer organizations offering other important skill sets. Tanina Rostain documented six years ago how companies that offer “corporate compliance” or “risk management” or “document production” or even “litigation consulting” already serve corporate general counsel, doing tasks once done by law firms. The displacement will not just happen at the high end of the market where corporations assemble their own teams. In the future, aided by software and tightly defined business processes, paraprofessionals will also encroach on what has been lawyers’ turf, just as nurse practitioners have supplanted primary care physicians in many settings.
To the extent society is concerned about, and willing to support, educational training for those engaged in legal services, the time has come to think about very different kinds of training and, most likely, very different types of educational institutions. As with any other industry, the $230 billion plus US legal services industry exists because it meets needs of consumers. Clients come to lawyers because they have a job that needs to be done.
Professionals, unlike retail merchants or manufacturers, do not fill consumer needs by selling products to which they have added some kind of value. They pursue a different business model than that of the value chain, one that has been called by Clayton Christensen and others the “solution shop,” or, to distinguish it from a “value chain” business, a “value shop.” Professionals diagnose and solve problems – often vaguely defined problems of uncertain scope – by bringing to bear a specialized skill set or technology accessible to them but not to the general public. Problem solvers of this type include not just lawyers, but doctors, police detectives, and management consultants, to name a few.
The nature of the special skills and technology play a critical role in this model. The skills must be sufficient to solve the client’s problem, and they must be skills or a technology not generally available outside the profession. Typically, the people employed by solution shops have specialized training, which is further enhanced as they gain experience on the job.
Legal services are in crisis because the technology imparted by law schools no longer meets the needs of consumers. Put differently, today’s law schools deliver a set of skills and a body of knowledge not sufficient to meet the needs of consumers. As Herbert Kritzer has argued, we need to rethink “law workers.”
What’s wrong with the skill set law schools give lawyers?
Few lawyers have that kind of practice today, and fewer will in the future. Lawyers specialize. Lawyers specialize because they cannot be competent as generalists in a legal world of fractal granularity. As they go deep in their specialty, learning in depth material far beyond the capability of law schools to teach, much of what they learned in law school and demonstrated proficiency of on the bar exam has less and less relevance to their day to day lives. Put differently, the legal skills and technology they need to solve problems overlaps only in small part with an education designed for a different era. While arguments can be made that generalized training, much like an undergraduate liberal education, has inherent virtues, there is no question that great cost is added by teaching subjects not often applicable to the daily life of a narrow specialist.
Second, law school graduates’ skills are not sufficient. In part, this is because they need to go deeper legally in a specialty than law school allows, and because they need law practice skills not taught in school, but those deficiencies normally get fixed within professional legal organizations. More critically, their skills are not sufficient because as they go deep in a specialty they will find that they will need command of skills and technologies outside the boundaries of legal education – and outside the boundaries of traditional legal practice.
A document production specialist, for example, should have a commanding grasp of information technology. A marriage dissolution specialist would be well served by training in psychology. A compliance specialist should understand the sociology of organizations and how to evaluate statistically whether compliance has been achieved. Lawyers, without more, simply do not have in many specialized settings the skills to do the best job of solving the problems that drive consumers to professional specialists. They do not, in short, have the kind of technologies needed by a solution shop in today’s specialized world.
Lawyers do not have those other skills because, in part, they’ve spent their time and money acquiring broad based legal knowledge that will be of little to no use to them in their specialized practice.
A society serious about meeting the needs of consumers would train specialists with the skills needed for the very disparate kinds of problems that used to come to lawyers but are migrating to specialists carrying other professional identities. Given cost issues, which already have reached a crisis point, adding non-legal education on top of legal education will not be an efficient solution. Neither will it serve consumers to give professionals in other fields a bit of generalized legal training, training that if carried to conclusion would merely equip them to be legal generalists.
What is needed, and what will happen, is training focused on the ‘jobs’ consumers have that need doing, jobs that require very different technologies than those held by an 1870s legal generalist. Targeted legal education, relevant to the specialty involved, must be married to in depth training in the correlative technologies that matter to that specialty.
It’s not hard to see how consumers might prefer these different kinds of specialists, with these different kinds of skill sets, over lawyers. A parent facing the dissolution of a marriage might prefer to engage a professional who knows little about springing contingent remainders, but a lot about how to mitigate the psychological impact of divorce on children. A corporate counsel dealing with recurrent document production issues might trade off knowledge of the Equal Protection clause for a skill set that could provide guidance, based in part on experience learned in the matter, on redesigning corporate information systems so as to reduce production costs in the future.
These new kinds of specialists will need training that straddles law and other fields, with enough legal content to meet consumer needs but not so much as to make the training unaffordable. Backed in part by the emerging guilds of these new professions, such educational programs will arise, and to some degree have already begun to arise. With one and sometimes two year degree programs, if not shorter certification programs, they will train people to do work historically related to legal work better than law schools can train them. Law schools could, but probably on the whole will not, compete to offer such programs. The additional skill sets needed lie outside the competence of most law faculty. Perhaps more importantly, the narrow job oriented training does not map to the legal academy’s sense of itself.
Is it really the end of law schools? Of course not. After all, we still have artisan candle makers in a world of LED lighting. It’s just the end of an era where law schools will be the only institutions training those who solve the legally related problems of consumers. Law schools can choose to participate in the training of the new breeds of law workers, or watch as it proceeds without them.