Higher education is confronting an existential crisis, and law schools are its poster child. Even before Covid-19, the law school business model, pedagogy, culture, faculty composition, marketplace detachment, poor student outcomes, and ever-escalating cost/massive student debt have drawn withering criticism. The pandemic has elevated law schools’ challenges and accelerated their reckoning.
Law schools have staunchly resisted online learning until Covid-19 rendered it a necessity. The tech-enabled, crisis-created shift from classroom to online learning occurred with astonishing speed, pervasiveness, and seamlessness. The transition exposed technology’s latent potential to support new models for delivering and consuming legal education and training. Distance learning is just the start.
What will post-pandemic legal education look like?
The Art Of The Possible: Legal Education Reimagined
The tools, resources, and market appetite exist to reimagine legal education and to create models that better serve students, customers, and society. In the new paradigm, legal education will morph from a place to a process; appointed time to on-time and in real-time learning; and an artisanal delivery model to a tech-enabled, scalable one. Legal education will be more affordable, data-enhanced, results-driven, and accountable.
Legal education will transition from short-term diploma factories to learning centers for life that provide upskilling throughout careers. The new pedagogy will instill the flexibility, agility, and augmented skills and competencies required of legal professionals in the digital age. It will offer programs with curricula tailored to competencies and experience required for specific roles and functions. Not all legal professionals require law school degrees and licensure. Many simply need “law light” exposure and more in-depth knowledge of specific legal areas and/or industries that complement training in project/process management, data analytics, compliance training, risk assessment, technology design/use case, and other legal delivery essentials. Medicine underwent this transition decades ago when it morphed into the healthcare industry. This enabled physicians to function “at the top of their licenses.” Lawyers will soon do the same.
Legal education will provide a blend of practical and people skills, cultural awareness, and doctrinal knowledge. Students will acquire a more global perspective, better understand the speed, complexity, and mindset of digital business, and learn to be agile problem solvers, imbued with a customer-first mindset. Legal education will be more accountable to its students and provide them with competencies required for contemporary legal careers, not vanishing ones. For most legal grads, law will be a skill, not a practice. That’s because the practice of law is shrinking and the business of delivering legal services is expanding.
Legal education will be tech-enabled and scalable. Students and faculty will no longer be constrained by physical presence, proscribed times to learn, or a “one size fits all” approach to learning, content, and process. Automation and sophisticated digital platforms will enable professors—wherever they are located and by whomever they are employed—to provide an individualized learning approach where student diversity, performance, behavior, and career objectives are taken into account.
The foregoing is not to suggest that law schools as we know them will vanish. There will still be great demand for a handful of elite, brand differentiated schools. Other institutions will confront escalating challenges that will result in a thinning of the law school herd. They will experience tremendous pressure to restructure curricula, faculty composition, overhead, and cost. Surviving traditional model law schools will collaborate with other professional schools in the university, legal service providers, and educational companies that offer high-quality, scalable content that can supplement and/or replace expensive, underperforming faculty and supporting staff.
Traditional legal education’s Waterloo may come as a surprise to many in academia, but not for business where pan-industry disruption of dominant provider models has become routine. The common denominator among disrupted incumbent providers is their inability, unwillingness, and/or hubris to foresee and respond to new delivery models that satisfy unmet customer wants and needs, price, ease of access, customer satisfaction, and results. Disruptors also share common characteristics— customer-centricity; tech-enabled ability to scale; data-driven risk assessment and decision making; ease of customer access and high level of service; capital; multidisciplinary, collaborative workforces; agility; and constant improvement.
The education industry—an enormous business—is next up on the disruption list, and law schools are at the top of the list. Their unsustainable, under-performing, and over-priced model has been ridiculed but unchallenged for years. Covid-19 will turbocharge new models of delivering and acquiring legal education. It will also reduce and consolidate the pool of existing law schools and accelerate the pace of survivors’ modernization.
A Focus On Output, Not Input
Law schools have focused on input— faculty pedigrees, publications, citations, library volumes, ranking, physical plants, and a steady build-up of administration and staff. Their objective is “to train students to think like a lawyer” and teach doctrinal law. “Thinking like a lawyer” is not a static concept, nor is it limited to critical thinking or legal basics. Digital lawyers must also be guided by data, not gut; assess risk holistically, not through a narrow legal lens; and satisfy the objectives of the client, not produce the best possible legal product regardless of its relevance or client value. Thinking like a lawyer is not as important as learning how to drive impactful, timely, responsive, cost-effective, data-backed, holistic risk-assessed, actionable counsel to clients.
Legal training has been dismissive of “soft skills”—collaboration, empathy, cultural awareness, client management, and customer service. That will change, because those traits are increasingly important for legal professionals in a diverse, global, multidisciplinary, and fluid marketplace. Law schools have focused on teaching students to identify problems, not to solve them. Their pedagogy views education from the lawyer—not client—perspective. This does not prepare students for law in the age of the customer. Lawyers are trained not to make mistakes. They must also be encouraged to be creative problem solvers operating within legal, regulatory, and ethical boundaries.
The new legal education paradigm will focus on output—external performance metrics. Some KPI’s include: producing “market ready” grads, effective job placement (a/k/a “student outcomes”), bar passage, improved student health and well-being, and substantially reduced student debt. Post-pandemic legal education will have more accountability to its students and offer several alternatives to the traditional law school model. Many future legal professionals will recognize that they do not need law degrees or licensure to have successful, rewarding legal careers. They can master legal basics through a variety of other channels and combine that knowledge with expertise in a variety of “business of law” competencies. This will enable them to forge a wide array of career paths in the industry and beyond.
No More Pencils, No More Books….And Classrooms Optional
Covid-19 is a Black Swan opportunity to reimagine legal education. Liberating its center of gravity from the physical classroom provides a wide range of pedagogical methods that include: flipped classrooms, micro-credentialing, personalized adaptive learning, utilizing interactive digital platforms—”Zoom on steroids”—to enhance and obviate the need for costly physical structures and maintenance costs; scalable, online “master classes” taught by leading scholars, thought leaders, and practitioners to replace deadwood faculty, and fewer tenured faculty appointments.
These changes will, of course, be easier to implement de novo than attempts to retrofit traditional law schools and their entrenched stakeholders. Elements of the traditional model can and will persist—especially among top echelon law schools. The other approximately 175 law schools, however, must effect immediate and fundamental change or face shuttering. This entails substantial and broad-based cost reduction; revamped curricula; market differentiation; as well as collaboration with other law schools, educational companies, and legal service providers.
More Choice And Lower Cost For Students
For students, the transformation of legal education means more affordable, outcome-oriented education options; greater flexibility to work part-time and to gain valuable market experience; an ability to “learn from the best” and not be saddled with mediocre professors; a better-rounded, more customized education; a greater emphasis on competency-based, just-in-time learning, and an ability to network beyond traditional law school physical boundaries. Some students will still opt for a more traditional classroom-oriented law school experience, even if it comes at a steep price. Many others will gravitate to lower-cost, flexible, online or hybrid programs better suited to their career path, lifestyle, learning preference, and budget.
A recent New York Times
The “Minerva model” has many benefits beyond cost-reduction. It is an antidote to provincialism, an opportunity to gain maturity, confidence, and heightened cultural awareness, and a mix of interactive, online learning coupled with a mélange of big-city exposure. This approach is not for everyone, but it is certainly a model that could be replicated by some law schools and/or for-profit educational providers.
Coursera and Khan Academy are larger, more broad-based online platforms whose model and course portfolio could be expanded to delivering doctrinal and business of law courses. Niche digital legal education providers like Hotshot Legal already collaborate with several leading law schools (and firms), providing students high quality, on-demand videos that break down fundamentals of legal topics and functions. It is not intended as a replacement for law schools but a supplement. Hotshot—and other companies that will follow— could, however, serve as a foundational training source for non-practicing legal professionals.
Legal education is at a crossroads. Its model was under siege before the pandemic and underwater now. Well-endowed, elite law schools will weather the storm, but even they have begun to embrace change in response to a rapidly changing business climate that is transforming the legal function. Other law schools must engage in more uncertain, rapid, fundamental transformation or confront shuttering. New educational providers will step in to fill the market void— just as new model legal providers have filled the “business of law” void created by practice-centric law firms.
It’s a new dawn for legal education, one that portends a brighter day for students, legal professionals, customers, those in need of legal services, and society. Law schools have little time to improve their poor grades.