Law schools join the talent war

Northwestern University School of Law garnered a lot of attention last week by announcing a series of curriculum changes, most prominently the creation of an accelerated JD program that would allow students to graduate with a law degree in 24 months, rather than the traditional 36. While Dayton and Southwestern law schools have gone this route before, NU is the first “elite” faculty (ninth in the irrationally important US News & World Report rankings) to go this route.

Most of the reaction to Northwestern’s announcement centered on the new two-year law degree, which some observers (including many commenters at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog) misread as a decision to “drop the third year” of law school. NU Law isn’t reducing its courseload by a third; it’s squeezing the traditional three-year degree into two calendar years, by means of a summer semester, extra courses each semester, and mini-courses between semesters. It’s a far more intense and challenging experience, not the easier one that eliminating the final year of school would suggest.

Predictably, the traditional three-year degree has staunch defenders, including those at NU’s crosstown rivals, who call the new plan an irresponsible compression that will produce inferior lawyers. Others worry that the law school experience is already sufficiently intense, and that cramming it into two years will damage students. But Dayton Law’s Dean of Students Lori Shaw sees no evidence that her program’s two-year enrolees missed out on the full law school experience: “It’s fascinating to see how much they can do.”

Now, in reality, accelerating a law degree by administering it in two years isn’t that big a deal — it’s certainly nothing like the major innovations undertaken at Washington & Lee Law School, which made its third year entirely experiential as part of a massive program overhaul. What really caught my attention — and that of Douglas Berman at Law School Innovation — were other aspects of Northwestern’s announcement that generated much less fanfare. From the Inside HigherEd article:

Northwestern is adding three new required courses (to the nine currently required, largely following a traditional law curriculum), starting with the two-year program and eventually being required of everyone. The new requirements are:

  • Quantitative analysis (accounting, finance and statistics).
  • Dynamics of legal behavior (teamwork, leadership and project management).
  • Strategic decision making.

These topic areas were grouped by faculty members based on the focus groups of what legal employers need….

These are all key elements of any law practice that intends to succeed in the 21st century. Particularly interesting are the mentions of project management, a skill I’m seeing repeatedly referenced by in-house counsel as a must-have ability that most lawyers simply don’t, and teamwork, an essential ability in the new collaborative lawyer-client relationship. Then there’s Northwestern Law’s renewed emphasis on teaching communications skills:

In addition to traditional legal writing (a memo, a brief), [NU Law Dean David Van Zandt] said employers urged the law school to stress such skills as the ability to deliver advice to a client in a one-page memo. A common complaint was that lawyers appear to have been taught to “waffle,” Van Zandt said. He hopes that Northwestern will be training lawyers who will, when appropriate, “make a firm recommendation” and know how to communicate that — either to fellow lawyers or people who aren’t lawyers.

As noted in these excerpts, Northwestern consulted extensively with legal employers about all these changes, and no doubt some people will see this as yet another sop by law schools to almighty law firm interests (and accompanying dollars). But I think that misses the point.

The focus of the changes at Northwestern (and the other innovative schools mentioned above) is on attracting students. Just as law firms are engaged in a war for talent, so too are law schools: they’re starting to take extreme measures to recruit the best law students, because they foresee that demographic and marketplace changes are going to reduce the supply of this commodity considerably.

Note how Northwestern’s press release characterizes this initiative as “a major new plan to maximize its graduates’ success in the changing worlds of the legal profession and the clients it serves…the plan stresses competencies to which most law schools pay little attention but industry leaders agree are critical for success in today’s legal careers.” Consider also Van Zandt’s repeated emphasis in these interviews on the financial benefits of a two-year degree: it won’t be any cheaper tuition-wise, but two-year grads get to start earning paycheques and paying down debt a year earlier. Then read what the dean told the widely read mass-market Chicago Tribune:

“For us to be successful, we have to be producing students that the rest of the world wants. Just producing people who are great at legal analysis, they are a dime a dozen out there now. We are trying to differentiate our students in a way that is positive.”

As much as anything else, these changes and the flurry of publicity they’ve generated are part of a marketing effort by Northwestern: branding itself as the law school that puts students’ career interests first and foremost. Since NU Law already owns a powerful reputation as an intellectually gifted program, the resulting combination could be extraordinarily appealing to a shrinking pre-law population that’s looking for more than just prestige when selecting a law school.

Law schools suffer from the same lock-down conservatism that afflicts the practicing bar — worse, in many ways, because the schools have long been able to run their own show without any kind of outside pressures, even the slight ones that law firms experience in their protected marketplace. But just as the pressures on the bar to acquire and keep the most talented lawyers are growing, so too are schools now feeling the heat to capture their share of that same population. Law firms have figured out that there are only so many great young lawyers to go around; this light is dawning on law schools, too.

What’s most important about Northwestern’s two-year law degree is that it’s not designed to please professors, law firms or clients — it’s designed to please students, and to attract the very best of them. Watch for similar initiatives from other law schools, as they come to realize that the students they’re trying to recruit are becoming both fewer and far more demanding.


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