The debate over a 2-year J.D., spurred by President Obama and touched upon in a preliminary report from an American Bar Association (ABA) task force, is just a small window into the larger challenges facing the business of law in the United States.
President Obama’s comment sparked a debate within the legal community that has spilled over into mainstream media. While these exchanges are important, the discussion must be broader.
I look at the challenges facing the business of law from the perspective of a 30-year legal career, as a lawyer in Washington and now as a law school dean.
The law has an ecosystem just like any industry, with demand, supply and standards. The demand for lawyers has changed dramatically in the past few years. That affects supply, which is the domain of law schools. The ABA sets national quality standards and state bar associations set them state-by-state.
Let’s focus on demand.
In any industry, the amount and nature of demand is the ultimate driver of change. While there are those who say that demand for lawyers is declining steeply, I argue instead that demand is still strong, but changing.
Is it true that there is less demand for lawyers to fill associate and then perhaps partner positions in large traditional law firms? Yes. But that does not mean that the world does not need more lawyers or professionals with a legal education. It just means we need legal expertise in different realms.
I've written about the changing world of law recently. For example, JP Morgan plans to hire 5,000 people to shore up its compliance department in the face of a series of government investigations and other legal woes that have befallen the embattled banker.
This level of demand for compliance experts did not exist a decade ago. But with the globalization of business, and compliance and risk issues that vary from country to country, JP Morgan and other major banks now must manage a labyrinth of rules and regulations. In the global economy, country borders are artificial, but rules of countries must be abided.
Another example of an area requiring new legal expertise is privacy, which is emerging as the number one civil liberty issue of our time – driven by technology that is pushing boundaries. Data collection and analysis tools now exist that can rapidly and continuously gather massive amounts of data – right down to when you made your last phone call – and produce an actionable report on whether that phone needs more attention from law enforcement or Homeland Security.
Similarly granular data collection by web-based firms enables businesses to track every move you make on the web to better serve your needs.
This phenomenon, known as big data, exposes a heightened need for lawyers who can sort out what governments and businesses can and cannot do in a digital world. This change in the nature of demand for lawyers was one catalyst for the ABA to look at the ecosystem and ask, “Based on the demands for lawyers moving forward, do we really have the right programs to fulfill the societal need?”
This question is at the heart of President Obama’s speech, the preliminary report from the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education and the national conversation about the value of law school.
For its part, the ABA task force addresses issues much broader than simply how much time future lawyers should spend in law school. It advises law schools to address costs of delivering a legal education, value of services and career success for graduates, among other priorities.
The ABA made its recommendations based on two central issues facing students contemplating or already enrolled in law school: 1) the high cost of tuition; and 2) tight job prospects post-graduation, especially for traditional, high-paying positions. There is no question that making law school a greater value to the student and society is the ultimate challenge.
To act on this challenge and these recommendations, law schools must connect deeply with businesses, government and law firms to truly understand their needs for people with a J.D. We then must test and prove what we learn as hypotheses in the real market.
In the meantime, Brooklyn Law School and others have instituted various 2-year J.D. options. The 2-year program at Brooklyn Law School, for example, is for highly motivated students who can complete the 85 credits required for a 3-year law degree in 24 months. But all 2-year programs are just a piece of a complex puzzle – one that legal educators must solve as quickly as possible while still upholding the standards set forth by our individual law schools and the ABA.
Our most important measure of success is whether law schools produce lawyers that business and society are quick to hire for their specialized skills and relevant practical training, and that can look forward to rewarding lifelong careers in the law.
Nicholas W. Allard became Dean of Brooklyn Law School in 2012 after three decades in legal practice, public policy and politics. He is globally recognized for expertise and innovation on legislative, regulatory matters, and higher education.
In 2013, Brooklyn Law School became the first New York law school to adopt a two-year JD degree enabling select students to complete three-year courses in 24 months.
Dean Allard was partner, chair of the Public Policy Department and co-chair of the Government Advocacy Practice at Patton Boggs LLP. He is a graduate of Princeton University, Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and Yale University Law School.
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