Legal education is in the early stages of remodelling and renovation. Thus, we are living through a period of messiness. Evidence of this is a virtual Symposium at PrawfsBlawg, a forum of law professors for law professors.  The symposium is called “The Futures of Legal Education.”  The organizer is Dan Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern Law and a legal educator with an excellent track record of leadership.  Dan was inspired by an epic five-part series on legal education by Pitt Law Professor Mike Madison at Madisonian (Part I here).

There is no way to summarize or boil down the conversation except to say (1) all the contributors are legal educators, and (2) the desire to do good is pervasive and sincere.  Design thinkers might counsel us to try rapid prototyping, but in the legal academy, our go-to move is a symposium.  Fortunately, several of the posts reveal real progress at home institutions.

There is not a lot overlap between the readership of Legal Evolution and PrawfBlawg.  Thus, I am republishing my contribution here, in part because it explains the paucity of recent Legal Evolution posts (which will soon change), and in part because because my post reflects a Legal Evolution perspective.  I hope you enjoy it.

“Every good idea sooner or later degenerates into hard work.”

This quote comes from writer Calvin Trillin, but I first heard it from NYLS Dean Rick Matasar over a decade ago as he shared some realism regarding innovation, in legal education or elsewhere.

I wanted to participate in this forum earlier, but alas, I was stuck doing hard work that followed a good idea.  A handful of innovators, including myself, have created a new nonprofit called the Institute for the Future of Legal Practice (IFLP, called “i-flip”).  Details online here.  I have been matching IFLP law students with summer employers. Unless this gets done well and quickly, the IFLP idea will fail.  So writing about the future of legal education had to wait.

I’ve been reading all the symposium posts and wholly appreciate the growing intellectual ferment.  Legal education is going to transform itself. I’m confident we’re in the early days of something great.

To help the cause, I would like to share a story about another idea that degenerated into nearly a decade of hard work.  The idea came from the initial publication of NALP’s bi-modal distribution, which revealed some very peculiar features about the market for entry-level legal talent.  We can argue over how we define legal ability or potential, but there’s little doubt it’s normally distributed.  Therefore, as noted by Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, labor markets should not have two distinct modes.

That insight led to the creation of Lawyer Metrics (now LawyerMetrix, owned by AccessLex Institute), an applied research company that, among other things, sought to bring analytics and measurement to legal hiring.  Of course, to make the idea work, we needed clients.  In the early days, I was very fortunate to be placed in front of the Chair of an AmLaw 50 law firm. To prepare, I circulated a four-page, single-spaced Moneyball memo.  I also created a PowerPoint.  Because I had sailed through tenure at Indiana on the strength of my empirical work on law firms, I was confident I could impress.

Yet, the meeting did not go well.  The Chair was certainly receptive, but she found my approach “too academic,” both orally and in writing. God love her, she was kind enough to tell me so.  If I wanted to do business with her firm, it was entirely up to me to close a very large communication gap, as she had other tough business problems to solve.  Suffice it to say, you don’t get too many one-hour meetings with law firm chairs. That was beginning of a steady humble pie diet.

Around that same time, Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck used gold-standard IO psychology methods to empirically derive 26 lawyer effectiveness factors.  See LSAC Final Report. One of the key takeaways was that academic predictors (LSAT, UGPA, 1st year grades) were correlated with only a handful of the effectiveness factors, with some of the relationships being negative (e.g., UGPA and practical judgment; LSAT and business development).  In contrast, a handful of well-validated assessments (e.g., Hogan Personality InventoryHogan Development Surveybiodata instruments) had much better correlations with lawyer effectiveness, and all of them were positive.

The Shultz-Zedeck findings strongly supported the business premise for Lawyer Metrics, which I documented in a lengthy 2008 memo.  But that is not the point of this story. If I scored myself on the effectiveness factors, I came up short.  For Lawyer Metrics to have any chance of surviving, I had to develop skills that were far beyond what tenure required.  Acquiring those skills (more specifically, attempting to acquire them) was the hardest and best thing I have ever done. However, on the front end of the “good” idea, I saw none of it coming.

I am not going to risk obliqueness here.  The narrative on legal education won’t materially change until one or more markets get moved.  And there is an ocean of distance between a good idea to better legal education and one’s ability to plan, finance, and execute that idea in a way that redistributes things that law schools care about (e.g., jobs for students, applications, philanthropic dollars, prestige, etc.).  What are the odds of that happening if we approach these challenges in our familiar academic way?

In Post 37, the wonderful and thoughtful Mike Madison asks the question, “How do we bring non-academics [legal tech, legal practitioners, access to justice advocates] meaningfully into the dialogue?”

My answer is simple.  We don’t. This is because academic dialogue is not what is needed.  Instead, we leave the building and visit these legal industry stakeholders in their natural environment.  We bring sandwiches.  We observe what is happening.  And we ask thoughtful and respectful questions, so we can come closer to seeing the world through their eyes.  Then we go back home and build prototypes that fit this new world.  Then we repeat.

This journey starts very messy. That is more than okay. What I am offering is a friendly admonition that our symposium won’t have an impact unless it degenerates into hard work – work likely beyond our current academic skill set, though hard work can fix that too.

Many thanks to Dan, Mike, the PrawfsBlawg editors, and the many contributors for a thoughtful month of dialogue.