Law firms may not be known for innovation, but they look positively cutting edge next to law schools. That was the consensus at the two-day Leading Legal Innovation conference, which drew 30 law firm leaders, professors, and entrepreneurs.
Among the topics on the table: Law schools are great at teaching students how to read a court decision, but they don’t teach many of the skills needed to be a successful lawyer. They also don’t screen applicants for the qualities that make for good lawyers. High grades and test scores alone are not good predictors for success.
William Henderson, an associate professor at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, suggests that a school like his, which doesn’t top many law firms’ recruiting lists, could indeed differentiate itself by teaching and screening for interpersonal skills. "If you can build a curriculum that teaches competencies like empathy, networking, and teamwork, a school could really change and be innovative,” says Henderson. Some additional adjunct faculty might be needed for those courses; however, Henderson admits that most law professors don’t have the skills to teach courses like this. (Henderson says his school is planning changes to address these gaps, but the school isn't ready to "share its playbook" at this point.)
Northwestern University School of Law is already aiming to differentiate itself by screening for more mature, experienced students. "This entering class had only three percent who came straight from college," says dean David Van Zandt. "More than 82% have two years experience, and I'm thinking more and more we need to increase that. I think it takes a while to learn the ability to work with others in teams and communicate effectively." ...
Several professors complained that the ABA--and its outdated accreditation standards--is the main bulwark against innovation. “The ABA is stifling law schools and preventing needed change,” says Northwestern dean Van Zandt. “Their regulation forces most of us to build an Acura instead of a Corolla, and that’s a real harm to society.” Van Zandt cited ABA rules requiring that a high percentage of a school’s faculty be full-time and tenured, rules limiting online courses, and burdensome and expensive requirements for law school libraries. “If you want to start a law school, you probably need 50-60,000 books in your library."
Benjamin Barton, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, contrasted law schools with business schools. "Business schools are massively more innovative because no one has to go to business school," he says. "They're more interested in showing that they're giving you something of value." In addition, he says, business school professors are much more attuned to the real world. "At a business school, corporate executives pay $10,000 a week to talk to