On Thursday September 17th, the University of San Francisco School of Law held a timely and informative symposium focused on navigating the changing legal employment landscape in the wake of the economy's collapse last September. Law students, lawyers, headhunters and media assembled, some seeking jobs, some looking to hire and all curious about what the new landscape means for the practice of law.
The symposium's timeliness and importance was evidenced by a packed house and riveting panels focused on the big firm environment, solo and small firm practice, alternative legal careers and future models for legal careers. The San Francisco Business Journal captured its flavor. http://sanfrancisco.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2009/09/debating_the_future_of_young_legal_eagles.html
But a funny thing happened on the way to the symposium: if the focus was legal employment post-graduation, which it surely was, another question kept presenting itself. What does all of this mean for legal education and for students before they graduate? And the answer is apparent: plenty!
Panelist after panelist raised questions and described emerging practices that must impact the way we legal educators conceive our work. For me, the 'aha!' moment came during a panel on future careers that touched on new law firm models emerging from the ashes of Lehman Brothers and the collapse of venerable and respected law firms such as San Francisco's Heller Ehrman. Panelists made it clear that the focus is shifting to hiring senior, experienced attorneys and that the traditional training grounds for lawyers -- the firm environment -- were fast disappearing.
The reason for this trend pierces the heart of the crisis, exposing the unsustainable way legal employment is currently structured: a partner/associate structure that depends on long hours for associates billed at very high (astronomical?) rates and a distancing of the partner from doing much of the actual work that the client expected the partner to perform. Associates were leaving firms in large numbers, unhappy with the environment, and clients, particularly in these economic times, have revolted. The upshot: emerging new models in which experienced lawyers are being hired at much reduced rates, often on a project-basis, to perform work directly for the client. Participants at the symposium, such as Paragon Legal and Virtual Law Partners (VLP), using such models reported big successes and booming business.
In the wake of this, the young lawyer and the new graduate will find a job market with more limited options along with training opportunities that may be hard to come by, reported many on the panels. It was time, Andrea Chavez, founder of VLP, for young lawyers to "adjust their expectations".
But it's not just the young lawyers that have to adjust. Law schools must too. Where will training be provided? Where will the basic skills be learned? Law schools must step up and enhance even more the skills training that we know must be a part of modern legal education, including the ability ferret out unethical conduct and to act professionally.
It is not enough for law schools to claim that "we do this already". Indeed, we do it now, but not enough. Just ask the Carnegie Foundation whose latest report on legal education recommends more skills and professionalism training. Just ask the AALS whose recent report on best practices in legal education paralleled much of the Carnegie recommendations. Both reports were published well before the crash, but the crash emphasizes the critical need to follow through on curricular reforms that will make skills and ethical training more front and center than ever.
The crash also highlights the need for law schools to do something that may be even more difficult -- maintain the spirit and passions of our students as they face the bleakest job market in decades. Our students are bright and motivated. They want to do the right thing. How else would one explain USF Law students engaging the community by the hundreds, serving meals and working with children and prison inmates? How else would one explain USF law students going around the world, around the nation and all over California this summer working in nine developing countries, in five southern states and here in San Francisco on projects ranging from war crimes to law reform to the fight against the death penalty to issues affecting migrant workers. These spirited students demand our commitment to create opportunities to feed their insatiable appetite to do good.
So as we look at the financial crisis, legal educators must not only focus on what is happening in the legal job market, we must also focus on what we're doing right at home in our law schools. We owe it to our students and to the profession. Indeed, a funny thing happened on the way to the symposium!