The upcoming Elephant Post this week deals with the question of what do law schools need to stop teaching, and replace it with something that the profession sees as more valuable to those entering the legal profession. I have to be one of the first to admit that when I transitioned from a law school job to a law firm job, I was stunned by the extreme differences between the two jobs that were supposed to be of the same profession. Setting aside some of the obvious distinctions, such as Westlaw contracts going from five-figure dollar range to the seven-figure dollar range, there were core areas of distinction between my law school job duties and my law firm job duties. After working in the law firm environment now for nearly a decade, I am constantly reminded of the dichotomy between law schools and law firms.
As I was making my way through my reading list, I ran across Jason Wilson’s post on an upcoming paper from Lisa D. Kinzer, a law student from the University of Texas School of Law, where she discusses her survey on the utter reliance that law students have with WestlawNext. When I read a couple of the sentences explaining the thoughts behind the paper, it reminded me once again of the distinctions of “what’s important” in the law school setting may not have any importance what so ever in the law firm. Indicating that students have a significant preference of using WestlawNext, Kinzer states:
When one considers that very few practitioners even have access to WestlawNext, the implications for the effective preparation of law students for the workplace are considerable…. In this paper, I review the results of my survey and offer proposals as to how law schools can incorporate the seemingly addictive WestlawNext into their research curriculum while still ensuring that students will be effective when working with the limited resources available at the average law office.
Law schools have an almost bipolar approach to how they prepare students for the legal profession. I know, many of you may think that tri-polar or quad-polar may be more accurate, but I’ll just stick to the research approach at this time. Just think of what the legal research and writing teams have to accomplish, and bring in the law librarians as well. First of all, there is the task of having to teach the basics of reading, writing, and researching based on the traditions of the profession. However, on the opposite end of this spectrum lies the advanced research tools, such as WestlawNext, that work to perform many of those basic tasks for the researcher.
In a way, you can think of it as teaching a teenager how to drive by having them read a book about a Ford Escort with a manual transmission, then taking them out on the road in a high-end SUV with an automatic transmission. I’m sure that the driving instructor would confidently answer that all of the students are capable of driving a manual transmission… although, almost none of the students will have actually driven one. Much like many of the R&W profs and law librarians will say that since students have access to the old “Westlaw.com” platform, they should be able to research on it if they are forced to. If you’re a teenager and you have the keys to an Escalade and an Escort… both with full-tanks of gas, and Daddy will replenish the gas tank when you bring it back… which one do you think they are going to drive?
Now, before my friends in academia start drafting hate letters to me, I want to point out that I don’t think that the problem rests with the R&W profs or the law librarians at the law schools. I think that the blame for letting students get out of law school without the proper amount of core legal research skills rests mainly on the shoulders of the law firms that recruit students without laying out the standards of what is expected of them when they show up on day one, and pass along that information back to the R&W profs and law librarians. Think about it… when is the last time that a law firm librarian went to the law school librarian and gave them a list of core skill that are needed to work at this law firm? I’m sure it happens, but not very often.
As long as we pretend that law schools and law firms don’t really need to work together to improve the skills that law students have when they transition from academics to professional setting, then this problem will persist. I’ve heard for years, from both academics and firms, that they are hoping that either the Bar or some other association will step up and work out the details of changing how law students are better prepared for entering the profession. Well, guess what. These Bars and associations are made up from the same batch of people wanting it to be someone else’s responsibility.
I think that this problem is worked out the same way that many environmentalist look at how everyone could save the world: “Think Globally, Act Locally”. If you’re really disappointed at the skills that your Summer and Fall Associates have when they come to your firm, draft up what skills you expect these associates to have, and give it to the law schools you generally hire from. At a minimum, it will get the conversation going. There’s a saying that I use a lot around the office that kind of fits the situation that many R&W profs and law librarians at law schools find themselves in. “I can create great tools that do wonderful things, but if it doesn’t fit your needs, then it is worthless.” I usually back that statement up with a call for input from those I work with to tell me what they need. I think it is high time that law firm and law school professionals start talking and telling each other what they really need.