If law is not an island, why does legal education remain so isolated?
When I graduated from my law degree at Cambridge, I was an oddity amongst my peers. I came to law after having completed degrees in public policy and history and having worked in government in a public agency charged with transport regulation. Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I had held down a professional job, completed a degree, and undertaken a range of voluntary and co-curricular activities. These were all experiences that I assumed would stand me in good stead in the legal job market. When my applications were routinely rejected from vacation schemes, I become perplexed. When I failed to receive any interviews for training contracts, I became concerned.
Unsure of what to do upon graduation and in need of an income, I took a receptionist job at the London office of a White-Shoe Firm. This was a largely unfulfilling experience, but one which afforded me two benefits: (i) an environment within which to build my emotional resilience when my intelligence was routinely underestimated by (in the main) other members of the administrative hierarchy, a skill that has proven invaluable in academia where age is routinely conflated with IQ; and, (ii) access to the Firm’s HR Manager who agreed to meet with me to go over my CV and help assess where I might be going wrong. Her verdict was delivered swiftly and sharply. My CV ‘confused’ her. It suggested I did not have a clear commitment to pursuing a career in commercial law, and my professional work experience and prior degrees were entirely irrelevant.
That I did not persist in my search for a training contract (unlike my peers, many of whom spent years working as paralegals to achieve this goal) suggests that there was at least some truth to her lack of commitment argument. Commercial law was never really for me. However, I found it curious that evidence of my lack of suitability was found in my previous experience and qualifications rather than in my lack of voluntary community legal work experience, my grades or the fact that I look exceedingly uncomfortable in a suit. Nearly all of those comments would have been easier to hear than being told that my previous degrees and work experience were, not just a waste of time, but also a waste of time that undermined my applications.
If the attitude of this particular HR Manager ever represented the norm in law, it appears not have persisted. Firms are increasingly diversifying their hires, from recruiting PhD qualified scientists to assist with patent disputes, design thinkers to assist with innovation consultancy, project managers to deliver process orientated change, and technologists to assist with emerging legal technology initiatives, Law Firms are becoming incubators for multi-disciplinary collaboration. An evolution that we might attribute to Jones 1988 observation on the changing nature of the profession, from a model of practice in which there were clear distinctions between “legal" matters on which the lawyer focused and "business" matters that were “the province of the client”, to the emerging lawyer, who was “almost as likely to be focusing on economic, scientific, financial, or political questions as on strictly legal issues”.
This transition recognises that legal problems do not exist within a vacuum. Law firms increasingly provide services, which are not solely ‘legal’. A merger and acquisition is not just a legal process, but a process which demands a degree of financial, strategic and interpersonal finesse. A patent law dispute is not separate from the scientific complexities of the alleged infringement. Wills and Estates work is not only about executing a legal task, but about doing so in a way that protects assets and provides a client with requisite assurance. Contract law is an exercise in risk forecasting and balancing competing interests. A large due diligence project may involve project management skills, the ability to accurately cost the project, to remain responsive to clients needs and, in many cases, to interact with a myriad of software and technology solutions or to find solutions in instances where a client does not want a particular software or technology used. The legal needs of clients, whether an individual, company or public agency, arise within a context that stretches beyond the law and subsequently involve skills that go beyond legal reasoning.
Why then has academia been so slow to facilitate opportunities for law students to acquire a more holistic set of skills? In the UK this is partly attributable to the separation between academic and vocational law. Academia has encouraged the study of law as a liberal art, rather than solely as a means to a vocational end. Yet, the majority of students who pursue a degree in law do so because they wish to pursue a legal career (even if this trend is changing). As the legal profession continues to evolve, we must consider whether an LLB is adequate preparation for the increasingly competitive legal job market. This is particularly true in respect of legal technology, where much of the academic discourse is lawyer-centric. Far more is said about how to teach lawyers tech skills and far less is said about whether we should instead teach computer scientists legal skills. As Law schools dither over how to incorporate new skills into the curriculum, the LLB becomes increasingly detached from the modern hiring practices of Law Firms who are demanding ‘more’ from applicants.
In the short to medium term, aspiring lawyers should fear the evolution of technology far less than they fear the likely dominance of their GDL peers who can offer the unconventional skill set that modern law requires. The US delivers legal training as a post-graduate degree, a number of Australian Universities require that law be studied as part of a double degree. These approaches necessarily demand a longer training path and this has implications for the accessibility and financing of education. At the same time these approaches also recognise that law is not an island. In the face of change, legal educators have a responsibility to prepare students for the future by anchoring legal education within a broader archipelago of skills. This requires an inter-disciplinary approach to legal education and scholarship that Law Schools have not always welcomed. As Director of the UK’s first Legal Innovation Centre, I am once again considered an oddity; but as legal educators become more attuned to the changing tide of legal practice, it is my hope that this perception will be short lived.