Disrupting the legal education marketplace

Are you old enough to remember when the only way you could send a letter or a package to someone in another city was through the Post Office? Do you remember what it was like to deal with the employees and policies of a company that had a complete monopoly on a vital service? Remember how much you enjoyed that?

Are you also old enough to remember when the only way you could phone someone in another area code was through long-distance services provided by your local telephone monopoly or duopoly? And how you had to wait and call after 6 pm to get a discounted rate, or after midnight for an even steeper discount? How did that work for you?

It’s easy to forget how much technology and globalization have changed and improved our everyday experiences in the last few decades. Today, we take companies like Fedex and Skype for granted. We have trouble picturing a world — a very recent world — in which there was no Ikea, no Amazon, no Samsung, no Starbucks, no SouthWest. You don’t have to use these companies or like their products to recognize that their arrivals changed the markets they entered, created more choice, forced the incumbents to lower their prices or raise their games or change their offerings or all three. And I can presume that you wouldn’t go back to those old, narrow, barren markets unless forced at gunpoint.

Now, take that frustrating, constraining, 1970s-malaise feeling you recall from the old days, and apply it to legal services. Because that’s the way many people and businesses still experience the legal market: one type of provider, one set of rules and procedures, one definition of adequate service. But that’s all about to change:  our cozy little market is opening up, and new players are entering.

These new players, like the Ikeas and Southwests that entered other markets before them, will undermine clients’ existing assumptions about how legal products and services should be created, priced and delivered, and they will find many willing customers desperate for a breath of fresh air. This isn’t really negotiable or reversible. All that’s left for us to decide, as lawyers, is whether we want to wind up as the future equivalent of the Post Office in a FedEx world.

Now, here’s the better news for lawyers: there’s a growing chance that we could experience the same kinds of consumer benefits arising from the opening and expansion of another dusty, moribund market: legal education.

As you know, for all practical purposes, there is one and only one route into the legal profession: a law school degree and a Bar-administered admission process. The degree goes by different names (e.g., Bachelor of Laws, Juris Doctor) and so does the admission process (e.g., articling, Bar exam, solicitor training, Bar admission course). But the basic structure is universal and hasn’t changed for decades: three years of law school followed by a competence assessment that, in most (but not all) cases, is not especially difficult to pass.

The practicing Bar’s unhappiness with the legal education system has been thoroughly documented. But the Bar also has no one to blame but itself. By allowing a law degree to stand as the exclusive means of legal education credentialing, the legal profession has also created a monopoly that works against its own interests. If you want to become a lawyer, you must first go to law school. Legal educators, gifted with sole possession of an extremely lucrative and perennially increasing market, have responded exactly as you would expect any monopolist to respond: jacking up prices, fending off change, and ensuring their own nests are comfortably lined. (Before you start feeling too resentful about that, go back and read the fourth paragraph again.)

Law schools, of course, are currently in the process of watching their pleasure domes start to crack and crumble. Thanks in large part to recessionary forces and changes to the way law firms hire and use associates, US lawyer employment has imploded, and law schools are paying the price. You could argue — I won’t, at least not strenuously — that this is unfair to the schools: they didn’t cause the changes to the market, and if anything, they’re doing a slightly better job preparing students for practice today than they did 10 and 20 years ago. Not that that will help them now — there’s an old saying that when you sow the wind, you reap the tornado.

Anyway, the most recent US law school data is remarkably grim: as you’ve probably read, applications to ABA-accredited law schools are down 20% from 2012 and are on track to nosedive 38% since 2010. If you go back to 2004, the drop is an astonishing 50%. This has hit the legal academy like a hand grenade tossed through a window: Paul Campos has been tracking the resulting panic and shrapnel for several months now.

The problem has become large and serious enough to have caught the attention of the mainstream press: The New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes and The Daily Beast have all picked up the story, coverage that is just going to accelerate the race away from law school enrolment. I issued a “sell” advisory on law schools 20 months ago, and nothing that’s happened since has changed my mind. (Smart schools still interested in saving themselves should read Bill Henderson’s Blueprint, today.)

That, obviously, is the bad news. The good news is that this market disruption, like every other, can create opportunities for new players and new models. Here are a couple that you should note and encourage.

In England & Wales, now widely recognized as the world’s legal laboratory, apprenticeship is poised to make a comeback in the professions. “At the moment, to become qualified as a solicitor, accountant or in insurance, the typical route involves three years at university, then on-the-job training and professional qualifications,” wrote Skills Minister Matthew Hancock in the Telegraph. “But university is not for everyone. There is no reason why you can’t attain the same qualifications, without the degree, starting on-the-job training in an apprenticeship from day one. So I want apprenticeships spanning craft, technical and professional jobs that open up work-based routes to the top.” The minister cited approvingly an apprenticeship program under development at BPP Law School, which has close ties to the profession.

Now, if you’ve been reading my work for a while, you’ll know that I think highly of apprenticeship, and that I wrote a few years ago about some promising apprenticeship programs at a handful of US law firms. (Here’s the paper I submitted to a Georgetown Law symposium on the subject.)  I imagined and hoped that this was a trend that would take off in a recessionary climate; it did not. But that was apprenticeship as a training method for new lawyers; we’re now talking about apprenticeship as a non-school route into the profession.

Hardly anyone takes that path anymore; but if it could be revived, ideally complemented with a mini-degree that provided grounding in the essentials of jurisprudence and legal theory, then law schools would have more on their hands than just a PR nightmare and a shrinking inventory: they would have competition. And unlike those first two factors, which will spawn only destructive outcomes, competition can and should be constructive for schools. Competing models that threaten to siphon off the best applicants would spur schools to make real changes in their approach to the market — it would give them a target to focus on and a framework within which to reconfigure and rebuild.

Nobody wants law schools to disappear; we want law schools to thrive — but on their merits. Putting a viable alternative up against law schools would motivate them to reconsider their own models, defend their own visions of lawyer preparation, or adapt their approaches to more closely resemble what the successful options offer. Complaining about law schools didn’t work; trying to regulate them won’t work; and putting them out of business is pointless. So give them competition: unleash alternatives that can give them a run for their money, and let them fight their way out of this mess.

A similar sort of innovation may be unfolding here in Canada, which it seems fair to say is not widely recognized as the world’s legal laboratory. But the Law Society of Upper Canada in Ontario has recently done something which could be just as bold, in its own way, as the UK’s move towards apprenticeship.

Law graduates cannot be admitted to the Bar in Canada until they’ve completed a year of articling — itself a form of apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer or law firm. More than a few US commentators have envied this approach and suggested its adoption in the US (or the British solicitor trainee program or German Referendarzeit). But articling in Canada is itself the subject of ongoing controversy, and in Ontario, articling placement — which used to be all but automatic — is now down to about 85%. That’s a problem that the US bar, facing a 55% new-lawyer law-related employment rate, would love to have.

In Ontario, however, concern about the articling crisis led to heated debates and finally, late last year, to the approval of a pilot-project Law Practice Program that would run parallel to articling and provide an avenue to those who cannot land articling positions. The program is not, shall we say, universally popular, and at this extremely early stage, it’s almost entirely speculative anyway. But I think it’s tremendously important nonetheless, for much the same reason as I think the possibility of apprenticeship is important: it creates competition for new lawyer training.

Up until now, articling in Canada has, in a sense, enjoyed a monopoly, in much the same way that law schools and lawyers have. There is only one “apprenticeship” method, one training route, for Canadian bar admission, and that’s the articling process. Knowing this, many Canadian law firms have felt free to offer articling positions without having to worry very much, if at all, about the quality of those positions. All they really had to concern themselves with was the provision of a competitive salary; it was accepted wisdom among lawyers and law graduates alike that the articling experience itself would always be uneven, and that whether you really learned much about being a lawyer would be partly a matter of your own efforts and partly the luck of the draw.

Now, introduce the Law Practice Program into this mix. Suddenly, articling programs can’t afford to be complacent, because now there’s another training option. Providers of the Law Practice Program (it’s envisioned that there would be several) can pitch themselves to the law student market thus: “Law firms won’t really train you to be lawyers, you know. They’ll have you photocopying and doing grunt work and picking up drycleaning. But we will train you, through competitive work placements and practical role-play sessions and other cutting-edge methods for inculcating business skills. We will give you the tools to be employable upon graduation.”

These providers will have to offer and deliver these kinds of benefits, because that’s the only way they’ll be able to make money. In order to attract candidates — and, much more importantly, to produce graduates attractive to employers — they will need to build a training program superior to articling (and based on some reported articling experiences, that might not be terribly difficult). They will have to do more than just be a consolation pathway for students who couldn’t find articles — they’ll have to persuade law graduates of all stripes that their programs are as good as or better than articling and are worth the investment.

And if they succeed — well, then suddenly, we have a race. New lawyer training stops revolving around the tired old question of “Whose responsibility is it?” that we’ve been grappling with for ages. It becomes a question of “Who wants the opportunity?” Which training option is better for new law grads? Which can deliver the best results? Which can draw the best students into their programs and produce the best subsequent employment rates? A market filled with new lawyer training options, competing with each other to attract law graduates into their program, would have many ramifications — the likely end of standard paid training for new lawyers almost certainly among them — but the overall impact on the profession would be highly positive.

That’s why I think the Law Practice Program for the Ontario legal profession has the potential to be a game-changer, and why the suggestion of an apprenticeship route into the British profession is equally significant. Our legal education and admission methods have grown stagnant because they are monopolies, no different from the post office or phone companies of the past. Break up those monopolies — open up these markets and let in some sunshine and fresh air — and you’ll have the first real opportunity for serious reform and improvement in the new lawyer development process.

And if it all breaks right, then just like with mail and long-distance calls, no one will want to go back to the old days again.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises. 


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