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Open Letter to Law Schools: What Law Students Need to Learn to Be Hired By Tomorrow’s Largest Legal Employer – Solos & Smalls

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LSITDear Law Schools,

I’m guessing most of you don’t read my blog (not sufficiently academic or arcane) so permit me to introduce myself.  I am a real, live practicing lawyer with a firm in Washington D.C. Though perhaps atypical for a solo or small, I focus on several growing fields (emerging renewable energy technologies and micro-grids, pipeline regulatory proceedings and eminent domain on behalf of landowners and communities and 21st century legal ethics) that many of your students are beating down doors to enter. And because I recognize this, I’ve gone out of my way to hire and pay law students and new grads in my field because I believe that my generation in this profession owes an obligation to train those who come after.

But increasingly, I am finding that many of your students are, quite frankly, useless to me; lacking the basic skill set necessary to incorporate them quickly and seamlessly into a busy and frequently resource-constrained practice like mine.  Sure, I can understand having unformed research and analytic skills right out of law school. Over twenty years in, I still improve my skills with every brief or motion that I write.

Yet what I can’t fathom or tolerate is the utter lack of curiosity that many (but not all) new grads bring (or don’t bring) to the table when they hit the job market. I know that times are tough and it’s hard to be optimistic and proactive about the future when hope is dim. And certainly law school squeezes a lot of the natural inquisitiveness out of even the most hearty of students. Even so, how can today’s students not be excited about the cornucopia of riches at their fingertips — from free caselaw, free online legal briefs and memos by top attorneys, substantive analytic blogs galore, and an endless stream of news items on Twitter curated by experts in every field? Back in the day, I’d have been all over these tools, and yet like monks at a peep show, many law students simply avert their eyes and continue on their way. Nothing to see here — or so, they’re taught.

And maybe that attitude works over at big law, where associates need to stay hyper-focused to churn billable hours, while partners favor newbies who look to superiors rather than external sources as a font of knowledge. But out here in small land, where I scramble to keep up in three hot practice areas where I go up against AmLaw 100 firms (I’ll bet you’re surprised that solos actually do that! And win too!) while raising a family and blogging, I need young lawyers who can keep a pulse on my industry and inform me of what’s new.  I want new lawyers to challenge me every single day, not to sit like potted plants waiting for the next assignment.  And most importantly, lawyers who work with me have got to have basic 21st technology skills.

Now you law schools probably wonder what a lowly small firm lawyer is doing lecturing law schools about what they should be teaching.  After all, you have experts who write reports, you have big firm donors on your board not to mention a huge brain trust of really smart people populating your faculty and administration.  Heck, I don’t even rank high enough in the blogosphere to rate a quote in the New Republic’s article on how to fix law school.

But here’s why what my solo and small firm colleagues and I have to say matters so much.  Back in the day, most schools prepped attorneys to work at big law – but those jobs are gone for good.  Likewise, most government employers, which can hire big law cast offs with several years of experience, won’t touch new grads.  With the rising popularity of the “future of law,” the cool kids – like Axiom command lots of attention as the next big thing but I’ve got news for you: those guys can cherry-pick top talent (which is, after all their business model); if they deign to hire your new grads, it will be to support marketing or data analytics, not to practice law.

So, hate to break it to you, law schools, but you’re stuck with employers like me: solo and small firms who are the face of today’s legal employers. Maybe we don’t have the resources to hire your students long term or for much pay, but at the very least, we’re a safe harbor where they can gain valuable experience before they move on to a more permanent and stable position.

Now, I know when you hear the word “solo,” many law schools figure that you’ve got that angle covered with the now celebrated law school incubator programs. Don’t get me wrong – they’re a great idea as far as they go. But many of us solos and smalls who can actually hire your grads aren’t handling the pro-bono/low-bono cases that incubator participants handle. Moreover, incubators can handle only a handful of lawyers each year and the demand for skilled grads is much greater.

Besides, you DON”T need another program or clinic or five million dollar fancy pants teaching law firm  to teach the skills that I consider critical. Likewise, Suffolk Law School’s partnership with legal audit guru Casey Flaherty is certainly ambitious and a great way to put the school in the spotlight. But as I’ve pointed out , most solos and smalls have and expect far more advanced technology than the basics expected in Flaherty’s audit. (see this neat Infographic for a summary. Note, not much mention of the cloud for starters. And who doesn’t use a scanner these days?)

So even though no one has asked, here’s what I would do to train students in the basic tech skills that they need. To make it simple, I’ve outlined the competencies that are needed to succeed in 21st century law practice and how to integrate them seamlessly into the curriculum so that they become part of students’ daily routine.

1. Analysis and Legal Writing
Call me a traditionalist, but legal analysis, research and writing are hands-down most important skills that law school can teach. I need someone who understands the importance of seeing a case from a million different sides and building a persuasive argument out of the disparate pieces. I need someone who can write with confidence and power and purpose, cogently and void of jargon. These competencies improve as you go – and as a lawyer, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching a new lawyer’s written and analytic skills blossom under your tutelage. But in order to reach the point where I can function as a mentor or teacher, there needs to be some “there” there – and I’m not seeing it in many (but not all) of today’s grads.

It’s fairly easy to reinforce analysis and writing skills into law school.  Each time you read a case, why not take a look at the underlying briefs. Which arguments persuaded the court and why? What kind of writing was most understandable or sufficiently unique that it generated a “shout out” (i.e., a direct quote) from the court.  It’s this kind of stuff that ignites curiosity in law students – and by having them figure out how to find briefs online, using briefs to amplify cases instills resourcefulness too (note – pulling briefs off LEXIS isn’t the same. You need to experience the look of the brief, typos, funky fonts and all to evaluate its effectiveness).

2. Blogging
If there is a single skill that I wish law schools would focus on, it should be blogging. I know I’m biased – I’m a blogger myself – but the discipline of writing regularly combined with the urgency of getting timely posts to press – has improved my legal writing immensely. Incorporating blogging into legal education  is moronically easy.  Professors could assign students to blog about the daily lecture, relevant topics (e.g., students could blog about bankruptcy law). Doesn’t have to be every day; maybe 3-4 posts per class per semester. Blogging would also get students comfortable with blogging software which is another key skill since they could offer to blog for practicing lawyers and help build up content.

The importance of blogging isn’t limited to writing blogs. Students gain insight from reading. If you want to learn about criminal law – both the substantive issues and the practice,there is, hands down, no better place than the criminal defense blogs listed here, most of them by lawyers in the trenches.  But there are substantive blogs for lots of other practice areas.  In fact, I’m not even suggesting that lawyers stick to law related blogs. I track the future of lawyer and trends that I post on here or here not at law sites but rather places like TechCrunch which are months ahead of anything that makes its way down to legal. For my practice area, I’m more like to look at green finance sites rather than blogs on energy law. What’s important is to keep current and engaged.

3. Social Media
This one’s often controversial but I need attorneys who can do social media.  Last time I asked a law school to deliver students with these skills, I was treated to resumes that included a line about personal interests – scuba diving, cheese tasting and jogging.  Mildly interesting, but COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT to what I need. For example, I run a resource-constrained trade association and the easiest way for us to stay current is through twitter. That’s how I keep my firm in front of potential clients as well.  Social media also works for traditional networking events. It’s a no-brainer to set up a Facebook page for a monthly networking group yet some law students don’t have that skill either.

To be honest, I don’t know why more law students aren’t up to speed on this stuff – my high school aged daughters use it. Twitter and FB incorporate well in law school as well. Again, each day, have a student tweet a law school class – or tweet from conference events. Professors should be setting up Facebook groups for each class where students can ask questions and continue dialogue out of class. Social media has so, so many applications for law schools I can’t even cover them here – but couldn’t be easier.

4. Video and Visuals
Video is another way to produce content. My video skills are not great and I don’t have the time to master them. But law students should be. Video integrates easily with law school.  Video record “witness” testimony and practice admitting it (or presenting it) on an ipad in trial advocacy. Students can record moot court, interviews and an array of other interactions and review and critique them to improve performance. Video production capabilities are almost as important as word processing skills in today’s law office- so student should start mastering them.
Likewise, visuals – the ability to reduce complex ideas to visuals are gaining popularity. This is an area that law schools are starting to focus on though I wish they’d help redesign the boring, work-a-day stuff like lawyer representation agreements instead of putting together games and fun charts that granted, are more interesting but not as useful to practitioners.

5. Online research
Solos and smalls don’t have unlimited Westlaw accounts. Most of us use a variety of tools (here, I use LEXIS for energy, HeinOnline through Jenkins Law Library and SSRN for law journals, Google Scholar for lay of the land research and FastCase app for on the road research) – and what’s most important is the ability to segue way seamlessly from one to the other and then manage knowledge from multiple sources in one place. Easiest solution – ditch the LEXIS/Westlaw addiction and use a variety of research tools from the outset.  I like Evernote to compile research but there are plenty of other ways, including desktop file management.

6. Practice Management Tools and Cloud
Todays’ lawyers need fluency with cloud technologies. Not a specific system per se, but the concept of uploading, downloading, synching and sharing files and of course, security. Granted, this stuff is so easy to use that it’s not hard to train lawyers on how to do it. But what is difficult is instilling the process – for example, making clear that once a matter is filed, it’s got to be uploaded to my cloud-based files as well as saved on your own system.  It shocks me that many law schools don’t use cloud to share files – I know it is changing, but not fast enough.

The list above is just a cursory itemization of the skills that would help many solo and small firm lawyers. But I welcome feedback from other lawyers on what you consider important.

In addition to what I need, let me also save you some time and money from investing in programs to teach skills that I really don’t need from grads.  Specifically, I don’t need law school to teach students “faux skills” by lawyers who’ve never practiced. For me, a semester or two working in a legal clinic or experience in moot court or mock trial fits the bill. Believe it or not, teaching someone how to e-file a complaint or format a brief isn’t rocket science — and what’s more, procedures differ court to court, so I’d rather not have someone assume that the process they learned in law school applies everywhere. So long as law schools teach students to read the rules, call the clerk and ask questions about unclear procedures (and you’d be surprised how few have learned this) — and give students time to court-watch (in person is best, but webcast will work if available), I can take it from there.

Earth to law schools, the bottom line is this. Once upon a time, you all would have hung your heads in shame at the horror of your illustrious students slumming in solo and small land. Reality check — working full time or on a contract or part time basis for a solo or small firm may be the future for the majority of your students.  What’s more, my guess is that many of your grads would be grateful for an opportunity to actually use their legal skills instead of being directed to non-legal analyst or marketing jobs or doc review.   Moreover, the practice of law has changed, and in case you haven’t noticed, solos and smalls are neither bumbling losers nor morons churning out cookie-cutter wills and incorporations using fill-in-the-blank forms that you believe.

We solos and smalls are, and have always been cutting edge and ahead of the curve of the profession. Because of technology, we can now ably handle complex, sophisticated matters that might not have been possible a few years back and increasingly, we are the choice of many large firm clients who are less concerned about pedigree than you law schools are.  We can help rescue our profession from this mess (brought on, largely I might add, by large firms who never thought that the day of reckoning would come). But to help, law schools need to do their part by producing graduates who can serve our needs so that we can serve our clients.


Ivy clad house image courtesy of Shutterstock

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