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Law firms are having to become nimble. A combination of technology, evolving markets, changing client demands and a financial crisis have forced a notoriously conservative sector to embrace new services, form fresh partnerships and become more entrepreneurial in order to keep relevant and stay alive.
From the emergence of in-house legal departments whose services are also revenue generators, to the adoption of online delivery models and automated tools, it is no longer considered enough to be “just” a skilled lawyer.
Firms want innovators who know how to run a company and generate new sources of income. Yet they also want lawyers who can reassure a wide range of businesses that they speak their language and understand their needs.
But what of the next generation coming through law schools?
In a fearsomely crowded market, with far more would-be lawyers than there are jobs available, is legal education changing fast enough to meet these new demands and give students the edge?
Peter Crisp, dean and chief executive of BPP Law School, says: “When it comes to studying for professional qualifications such as the LPC [legal practice course], I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of commercial awareness. It is not enough simply to learn the law.
“Law firms are businesses and need to be run successfully. You can be brilliant at the law, but if you are a rotten businessperson, you will fail. That involves learning about finance, but is also about developing a commercial mindset, which includes being able to innovate.”
Yet the picture painted by law firms and experts is patchy. It is not that there are no attempts to adapt legal education to a changing sector, it is more that, just as firms are making different changes at different speeds, law schools and training programmes are making uneven progress towards creating the new lawyer-entrepreneur.
Michele DeStefano, professor at the University of Miami School of Law, says: “It is an interesting dichotomy that, as the world gets more specialised, [the legal world] also needs more generalised skills.”
Prof DeStefano is also the founder of LawWithoutWalls, a programme that unites law and business schools, firms and companies, tech experts and others to introduce innovation into both training and practice.
She says: “[Firms] need well-rounded businesspeople who are also lawyers. Those things are in tension, but law schools have to grapple with it,” she says.
The demands the profession now makes on its up-and-coming members are many and varied. On the one hand are specific skills such as data analysis; on the other are the more general abilities of project management and the more nebulous talents of “entrepreneurship” and “business acumen”.
But how do you teach those?
“With LawWithoutWalls, the plan was always to include business schools,” says Prof DeStefano. “On every team we have someone who has created a legal start-up, or a lawyer who has created a start-up that could be in a non-legal area.” The idea, she adds, is to show students more of the real-world market.
In theory, the advantages are twofold.
First, a lawyer with some commercial sense is more likely to be an asset to his or her firm as it seeks new models – creating a “ one-stop-shop” of services, for example, or diversifying into consultancy, or even restructuring the firm to find efficiencies (outsourcing or offshoring more basic services, for instance).
Secondly it helps to reassure clients that the person they are relying on for legal advice understands their needs, rather than existing solely in a rarefied universe of high-end services charged by the hour.
Clients with a legal problem do not come to a firm out of an academic interest in the niceties of the law, says BPP’s Mr Crisp. “They come because they have a problem. A rounded commercial awareness is crucial to being able to advise clients and manage the risks of whatever they are doing.”
But there is an obvious obstacle. “It’s hard to teach these skills – should law professors do it?” asks Prof DeStefano. “How do we train the trainers?
“There are not a lot of professors who had business experience before they went into law. There are people who understand that the law market is changing. But there aren’t as many who are trying to teach 21st-century skills in a 21st-century way – and that’s because they are not easily taught in a traditional law school format.”
There is, therefore, a general recognition that law schools cannot go it alone and that the process of learning commercial skills cannot end once students have graduated and begun training. The obvious answer would be for schools and firms to feed off each other, but many experts say this is a slow process.
“Putting a couple of students to work together on a project is not the same as working with a diverse team that has a mixture of disciplines, which is really what our 21st-century world is about,” says Prof DeStefano.
Nonetheless, it is happening. Simon Hart, partner at RPC responsible for training, says: “There is no doubt that law schools have become more professional and well funded institutions that are trying to meet businesses’ requirements of what a lawyer looks like in the 21st century. The [courses] on offer are much more business-oriented than they used to be.”
Firms are innovating and changing “to let those skills be developed”, he adds. “The schools are coming and consulting with leading law firms – for example, they come to talk to us about their insurance law module because we are big players [in that sector].”
This is not just a question of packing the CV to stand out in the crowd, says BPP’s Mr Crisp. “In our view, [teaching financial and business skills] isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’. We believe – and this is echoed by what employers tell us – that this is an essential part of a would-be lawyer’s training.”
Some observers have wondered whether law students might find the acquisition of extralegal skills a distraction from the process of learning the law in depth. Mr Hart does not see this as a threat, because both the three-year law degree and the conversion course for non-law graduates are “still pretty much pure law”.
New skills are part of the additional studies beyond that point.
But that raises another question: if law schools are pushing through large numbers of “super-lawyers”, is there room for them all if the landscape of the profession is changing so radically?
“We are constantly trying to assess their business skills and find the [best candidates] in an ever-increasing pool,” says Mr Hart.