Friday, July 22, 2011

NYT: Law School Reform and Innovation in Law

Following a number of scathing articles over the last few weeks about law school graduates accumulating tremendous debt with few job prospects, the New York Times today published opinions from a variety of legal pundits about reforming law school. Many of the opinions revolved around the theme of increasing experiential learning and reducing class time.

David Lat, founder of Above the Law, argues for replacing the third year of law school with the beginning of an apprenticeship. Perhaps not surprisingly, but somewhat disappointing, three law school professors say that the current model is fine and that law school is a good opportunity, regardless of career prospects, to become "citizen scholars" (with > $120k in debt?).

This discussion has mirrored many conversations I have had recently with lawyers and Bay Area entrepreneurs who are looking not just at law school, but at the creaking wheels of law, and are working on ways to innovate.  Just this afternoon, I met with Tim Hwang, U.C. Berkeley Law student and partner in the fictional Robot, Robot & Hwang law firm.  Earlier this year, Hwang organized a conference of technologists and entrepreneurs in the legal space, and is currently working on projects that reinvent the relationship between law and technology.  We spoke about the generation of lawyers who are not following the traditional path from school into law firms--whether by choice or, more often, due to the downturn in the economy. Will this generation just disappear, or will it push for a transformation of legal practice?

I've also been speaking with Vivi Hoang, a recent law school graduate, who is working on an innovative plan to develop a startup law clinic at a Bay Area law school that would bring together students with entrepreneurs and law firms in this area.  This would seem to be a win-win all around: law students would get hands-on experience with legal issues that arise in startups; startups would be able to trim their legal bills, and participating law firms would be able to work with promising startups without taking on the full risk of a fee deferral arrangement.

Perhaps most encouraging was a meeting I had with Avlok Kohli and Kevin O'Keefe this morning, during Kevin's brief stop in the Bay Area from Seattle. Avlok is a brilliant strategist, software engineer and co-founder of a startup in the legal space that I've been working with. Kevin is the founder of the LexBlog network (tagline: "Real Lawyers Have Blogs") and has built a considerable following by helping lawyers to develop a thoughtful and effective approach to social media.  Kevin, like many of the others who I've spoken with recently, recognizes the need for a cultural shift among lawyers-- in the way we communicate with each other and with the public, and in our use of technology.  The skills that Kevin has emphasized for practicing lawyers--to develop and share their expertise in blogs and elsewhere online--is even more critical for the current generation of law school graduates.  These graduates will have to fend for themselves more and more, as the nature of the legal market and legal services inevitably change.

So while law students wait for the reforms that David Lat and others are calling for in the New York Times OpEds, they would do well to follow Kevin's advice and start now building their individual reputation online. In other words: Learn to stop worrying and love to blog.