LegalBusinessWorld Posts

”Et Tu, Elle Woods? Advice to Future Law Students

November 21, 2019

Samantha Elefant, a recent graduate of Suffolk, compares past perceptions of what “going to law school” means for many students with her own experience in the world of legal tech, and discusses the importance of introducing the “triple threat” Delta Model of professional lawyering to students.   

 

For sale: law degree, no promises. 

I wrote this story à la Hemingway in the middle of my first year of law school. Like Elle Woods, [1] I ended up a law student for reasons other than the expected “I want to be a lawyer.” It was not too long before I felt betrayed by what was proclaimed a pedestaled profession. That was, until I discovered an unexpected interdisciplinary approach to the less-than-gilded future of the pin-striped shark. If you are Elle Woods-ing your way in, like I did, you should be so lucky to uncover the future of a profession notoriously adverse to change. Without such a discovery, well, you are sure to understand why Brutus stabbed Caesar. 

 

I. Progress: Since No One Was Listening Everything Must Be Said Again

 

My wing is ready for flight,

I would like to turn back. 

If I stayed timeless time, 

I would have little luck. [3]

 

Walter Benjamin, famed philosopher, critic, and essayist believed his prized possession to be the Paul Klee painting, Angelus Novus. Benjamin’s analysis of the painting is that the Angel of History has his face turned towards the Past. A storm from Paradise has caught the Angel’s wings so violently that he can no longer close them. Almost irresistibly, the storm propels the Angel into the future, to which his back is turned. According to Benjamin, the storm is what we would call progress. [4]

 

Like the Angel of History, the legal profession has caught the gusts of Paradise. Historically, lawyers were viewed as the “technicians of change,” [5] when the United States was expanding both economically and territorially after Independence. For such a reputation at the nation’s birth, one would think today’s practitioners would be slightly more Hamilton than Burr. However, it is no secret that the “law is wedded to the past as no other profession is.” [6]  Where our jurisprudence is reliant on precedent, aversion to risk is inherent. Regardless, attorneys will have to unearth their roots, as “Beware the Luddite Lawyer!” bat-signals through law firms and legal departments. [7] 

 

In the first edition of Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind predicted that the practice of law would change more in the next twenty years than it has in the past two centuries.  [8] It seems to me he was right on track. The problem remains however, that few law schools are adapting to this shift, and few law students have an awareness of what they should be expecting, and perhaps even demanding of their legal education. No longer are the Harvey Specters of this profession future-proof. 

 

We begin with what prospective law students already know:
 

  1. Your judgmental and argumentative reputation with your family is not a business case for law school.

  2. The reality of practicing law is not “as seen on TV.”

  3. Law school is not the only use for your bachelor’s in philosophy or the Classics.

  4. You do not need a J.D. to change the world.

  5. Debt, debt, and more debt. [9]

  6. Law school is not the cure for not knowing what to do with your life.
     

Forgive me, dear reader, if this was not glaringly obvious to you. As a confession, it wasn’t for me – particularly numbers four and six. I believed law school would rid me of my anxieties about everything that was horribly wrong in this world. And if it couldn’t do that, then I was convinced it would arm me with the superpower of effectuating peace on earth. 

Don’t believe me? Here is an excerpt from my application essay…

 

My mother is the order that kept the links in my own personal chain of being balanced. With so little to be sure of in the world, if you can really be sure of anything at all, I was sure of my mother. […] I believe that law extends far beyond the written rule and the courtroom. Each of us live by our own created set of individual laws that keep us in order and attempt to fight off chaos. In ‘The Power of Myth,’ Joseph Campbell […] saw the position of Judges in mythological terms rather than sociological. He says that if the position were just a role, the judge could don a grey suit to court instead of the domineering black robe. 

 

For the law to hold its authority, the power of the judge has to be mythologized, ritualized – just as a person’s own individual laws are. Law School is the ultimate exploration of the universe’s chain of being. Reason is the knowledge, and Passion is the drive. I want to study law so that I can re-order chaos for people, like my mother has done for me. 

 

A bit romantic, no? What made the difference, was that I found myself at a law school that flaunted not only foundational doctrinal requirements, but also a culinary cabaret of courses that prepared students for both traditional and non-traditional legal employment. 

 

You are already ahead if you understand that law is a lagging, not a leading indicator of trends. After 1L year, law students are freed from mandate to begin selecting courses that may interest them. I started looking to pack my schedule with a balance of garden-variety law topics, as well as classes that would get me thinking in terms of what a client might expect in practice. This is how I found the Legal Innovation and Technology Concentration at Suffolk Law. 

 

Ranked by National Jurist as the #1 school in the country for legal technology, [10] it was as if I had gone down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Not only was I taking courses in Trusts & Estates, Commercial Paper, and Copyright Law – but I was pairing those with courses in Process Improvement & Project Management and Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines. Of course, this is almost as fine a pairing as a Vintage Port and Stilton. But the trouble is, not every law student knows to go looking for this.

 

It was only in combining the traditions of legal education, with a sort of renaissance in what, and how the law is being taught, that the analytical framework provided by mandatory first year courses started to have a tangible and measurable impact. 

 

This is the part where I start begging. Future law student, if you are still reading this, and you are hell-bent on going to law school, then choose a school that teaches you what it means to be a lawyer with no expiration date. Otherwise, you might wake up a mid-career lawyer, uttering the iconic “so long, partner” as the profession passes you by.

 

This is not simply about learning how to use the newest and best technology. Rather, as Suffolk Law’s dean, Andrew Perlman stated, it is about a “new kind of issue spotting.”  Dean Perlman says, “we want our students to be able to identify when a legal service is being delivered inefficiently and to know that there are tools and methods that can improve quality and reduce prices.” [11] 

 

This idea brings to mind a business formula which is directly applicable to lawyers. 

 

Satisfaction = experiences/expectations.

 

Whether consciously or not, this is how clients determine the value they derive from legal services. Where experience does not meet expectation, satisfaction can never be achieved. 

 

It has already been proven that where lawyers are tech literate and include the standard tenets of business in their practice, a higher value is likely being delivered to clients. If you plan on committing three years of your life in time and treasure to a legal education, I strongly encourage you to seek out courses that will put you on the pulse of the profession’s future, in tandem with the foundational legal offerings, so that your J.D. is not already outdated by the time you are handed your diploma. 

 

You can build your critical thinking muscles through doctrine, while also becoming versed in expert systems, process improvement, project management, Artificial Intelligence, Design Thinking, and even coding for the law. As the Angel of History knows, there is no present or future without the past. 

 

II. EPILOGUE

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here.” [12]

 

If you have made it this far, I thank you. Truthfully, all I hope to accomplish is to add an important perspective that was missing from my decision-making process when I was applying to law school. 

 

We are very much operating in a world where lawyers must make law work in a business environment, and business professionals must make business work in a legal environment. Legal problems, underneath the glitz and the glam, are just problems. What a legal education should be about is learning to become a problem-solver, to accumulate the delta model skills [13] that will allow you to survive and adapt – like Jack Dawson might have if Rose had scooched. It will be a monumental disservice to not expose yourself to the part of law school that teaches law students how to collaborate, communicate, and empathize with their clients and business counterparts. 

 

So, make me a promise dear reader. If the law is your heaven’s call, immerse yourself in not only doctrine and lawyering skills, but make legal innovation and technology a priority as well. If you do this, you will not only graduate more practice-ready, but you will also be more marketable to hiring managers. Your relationships will matter, but so will the keywords and skillsets that trigger the algorithm which gets you past the stormtroopers.  

 

I will leave you with one final piece of advice. Before boarding Captain Ahab’s ship, it is imperative that you answer the question: Will this school prepare me, not only for how the law is practiced today, but also for how it will be practiced tomorrow? If you cannot answer this question in the affirmative, then you should reconsider whether you are applying to the right school. Whatever your choice may be, remain a discerning consumer of your legal education.   

 

 

What, like it’s hard? 

Notes  

[1] Amanda Brown, Legally Blonde (AuthorHouse, 2001). Elle Woods is the protagonist of the novel and is later portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the popular film adaption. The novel and film were subsequently adapted into the 2007 Broadway musical of the same name.  

[2] TEDxPuget Sound, Simon Sinek Start With Why, YouTube, (Sept. 2009), Go to video. 

[3] Gershom Scholem, Greetings from Angelus (To Walter on July 15, 1921). This poem was composed about Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, written to Walter Benjamin.
 [4] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations 257-58 (Schocken Books 1969). 

[5] Robert Stevens, Law School: Legal Education in America from the 1850s to the 1980s 7 

(The University of North Carolina Press 1987). 

[6] Richard A. Posner, What is Obviously 

Wrong with the Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable, The Green Bag, (June 2016), https://www.law.uchicago.edu/news/richard-posner-what-obviously-wrong-federal-judiciary-yet-eminently-curable. 

[7] Thomson Reuters, Overcoming Lawyers’ 

Resistance to Change, https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/insights/articles/overcoming-lawyers-resistance-to-change (last visited May 18, 2019). 

[8] Richard Susskind, tomorrow’s lawyers an introduction to your future (Oxford University Press 1st ed. 2013). 

[9] U.S. News & World Report, Which law school graduates have the most debt?  (last visited May 18, 2019). At some law schools 90% or more of graduates take on debt. Id.  

[10] Sherry Karabin, Best Schools for Legal Technology, National Jurist, https://bluetoad.com/publication/frame.php?i=537753&p=&pn=&ver=html5&view=articleBrowser&article_id=3233085  (last visited May 18, 2019).  

[11] Suffolk University, Educating Practice Ready Lawyers for the 21st Century, https://www.suffolk.edu/news-features/news/2018/11/02/18/38/suffolk-named-best-law-school-for-legal-technology (last visited May 18, 2019). 

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (2003).  

[13] Legal Executive Institute, Natalie Runyon, Delta Model Update: The Most Important Area of Lawyer Competency – Personal Effectiveness Skills, (March 2019) http://www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com/delta-model-personal-effectiveness-skills/. 

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