Monday, August 20, 2007

An Ominous Development

No, I'm not talking about anything terrorism-related, but the news that the law firm of Ford & Harrison (not to be confused with actor who portrayed Han Solo and Indiana Jones) will no longer bill clients for most of the time spent by first-year associates.

According to this National Law Journal story, the F&H decision was driven by the firm's recognition that focusing on billables for first-year associates meant skimping on training. Instead of doing document review of the sort that could be done as well or better by paralegals (for a fraction of the cost to the client), new associates will spend the bulk of their time observing depositions, witness interviews, strategy sessions, etc. That sounds like good for new associates, so why do I say this is an ominous development?

Because it underscores the fact that young lawyers leave law school unprepared for much of the practical work that firm lawyers do. If the F&H model catches on, terrific, but if it doesn't, it may only lead to calls from other firms for us law profs to pay more attention to skills training---important work to be sure, but a task which we pointy-heads (clinical profs excepted) have neither aptitude nor interest.

And yes, I'm still on vacation. I had a few minutes of downtime.

14 comments:

Tam said...

I wonder if they'll require a certain number of years from associates to make sure they don't take off after a year or two of training sans billable hours.

Carl said...

Maybe students destined for big firm life should be permitted to spend part or all of the largely superfluous 3L year in unpaid exterships with their future employers. Or perhaps firms should just reinstitute an apprenticeship period during which first years are paid a pittance for the privilege of learning to practice.

Frank said...

I don't think there's such a huge gulf between "pointy-heads" and practicing lawyers. I highly recommend Mike Madison's essay The Lawyer as Legal Scholar:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=511367

Frank said...

maybe this cite won't get cut off:
http://ssrn.com/abstract=511367

C.E. Petit said...

At least in the kinds of work I do — the bizarre combination of IP, civil procedure, contracts, and torts that makes up "publishing and licensing law" — there is not nearly as much difference between Academé and practice as many critics assume. For whatever reason, there seems to be a great deal more reliance on truly academic works (as opposed to the latest "X on AreaofLaw" practitioner's guides put out by Certain Oligopolistic Publishers) than in general litigation, and conversely perspectives honed by practice seem to make their way into relevant academic articles.

The one "problem area" is the continuing vitality of Nimmer on Copyright as an all-purpose reference tool. I'd make a sarcastic remark about how it's the "gold standard" for non-specialists... but then I'd realize it's not sarcastic at all. It's very much the equivalent of treating Sir Kenneth Clarke's general history of art and architecture Civilisation as authoritative on specific propositions concerning, say, Blake's woodcut illustrations and their context.

From what I've seen, most of the complaining about the distance between "academic practice" and "law practice" seems to revolve around something that law schools could, and should, do much better than they do: Teaching investigation and assimilation of the facts of a particular matter. Of course, much of that criticism comes from a perspective that has its own problems with assimilating facts (the MBA/investment-trained community).

Tam said...

Frank - I just read Mike Madison's paper, and I do not think it asserts or even supports the proposition that there's no "huge gulf between" legal scholars and practicing lawyers. Quite the opposite: Madison infers that Volokh's book is a "sly" commentary on the profession's current lack of capacity for the critical thinking skills that Volokh (according to Madison) thinks it should have. Without explicitly stating his purpose, Volokh is trying to remedy this problem under the guise of a how-to book on academic writing because attempting to produce scholarship is a good way to acquire those skills.

scath88 said...

As a graduate of CLS ('04) and a former lawyer now pursuing a PhD in international history, I was bothered by the remark that professors have "neither aptitude nor interest" in teaching students practical skills. It is this lack of interest in preparing students for the real world that leads so many of us to abandon the law altogether.

I am, perhaps, one of the first students in my class to leave law firm life in search of greener pastures. Over the past two years, I have kept in touch with many of my former classmates who are still at firms (though many are in the process of leaving), and we agree on one thing: our law school educations were pretty much useless.

This is not to to say that we didn't expand our intellectual capacities, amass a great deal of knowledge or enjoy our time in school. But when we entered the legal work force, we were dismayed to discover how ill-prepared we were. We became increasingly discouraged that the law firms had little time to train us properly, and that most of the knowledge we amassed in our "nuts-and bolts" classes was irrelevant to our daily lives. Even the highly touted ability to "think like a lawyer" remained largely unused during the first few years.

Obviously, the faults of the law firm machine should not be attributed to failings in legal education. Yet many of us feel that law students should receive a dose of practicality sometime during the second or third year. That is, law schools should incorporate into the curriculum some sort of technical training that would help students apply what they learn and allow them to transition more smoothly into their chosen fields.

I do not mean to argue that law schools should pander to the needs of corporate America or government agencies. Intellectual excellence and depth should remain at the forefront of legal education. Yet CLS needs to reexamine its mission and its priorities. What is the purpose of providing students with legal training if the large majority of them end up disillusioned and withdraw from the law? What kind of contribution is CLS making to society if its graduates must re-train themselves in order to be able to succeed professionally?

Even if the pointy-heads are uninterested in providing students with technical training, I believe it irresponsible to ignore the students' and society's needs.

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