Why the system for turning out tomorrow’s lawyers is not working in today’s marketplace

Legal education in the United States needs to change. The system for training people in the legal professions has simply not kept up with changing marketplace demands or developments in technology. This is particularly true of the IP field, where it is critical that the United States develop education programmes that recognise this new reality. The IP sector is fraught with uncertainty and yet it is at the heart of some of the most important questions facing the global economy. Disrupting the legal education system presents an opportunity – and an imperative – for change.

The legal education that we need today is not the one-size-fits-all model of the past. For 150 years, law schools and the legal services industry have combined to make this training a precious commodity. It is bundled in a very specific way, with no regard to particular practice areas or specialisations.

The legal profession should take a leaf from the book of the medical field. Under ‘healthcare occupations’, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics’s Occupational Outlook Handbook lists 46 career paths, from doctors and nurses to physician’s assistants, medical extenders, technologists and technicians. Only five paths are listed under ‘legal occupations’. Failing to adapt in a similar manner is unsustainable and fails to reflect the needs of the marketplace.

Technology has disrupted the legal services industry and facilitated a growing market for professionals outside of the juris doctor who may have no legal education at all. In fact, the single biggest growth area for legal jobs in the United States is for vacancies that do not require a juris doctor. Legal process outsourcing companies (LPOs) are a good example. They have gained significant traction and are increasingly carrying out work that was once the purview of entry-level associates, with annual industry growth rates upwards of 20%.

Law schools should not resist the expanding market for alternative legal service providers and legal tech; rather, they should lead the charge to offer an education to those who need it, in a different form than it has taken in the past, with more undergraduate and community college programmes to provide appropriate training. The University of Arizona College of Law has already launched the United States’ first undergraduate bachelor’s degree in law, in collaboration with the broader university. Other universities should follow suit.

Education within the juris doctor needs to change as well. Years ago, law firms spent the first few years training – and losing money on – new associates. Changing financial realities for the legal services industry means that law firms now need to hire associates who are prepared to hit the ground running.

Law schools should respond to this demand by ensuring that their students graduate with specialised and experiential training that prepares them not just to think like lawyers, but to be lawyers. Allowing for specialisation within the degree is one way to do so, with IP law being an ideal field for this.

The University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law Hybrid JD in IP, Technology and Information Law is the first specialised hybrid law degree, designed for working professionals in the IP and tech space and approved by the American Bar Association. The first class students take intellectual property; while they undertake all of the bar-tested courses such as property and contracts, the entire degree is designed to create attorneys who will be the IP leaders of tomorrow.

Developing a programme of legal education in a specific area of law, such as intellectual property, enables law schools to train graduates who understand the complexities of IP frameworks and their interaction with new technologies and human creativity – and who will thus be able to add value to a firm from day one. Further, launching the programme online with limited residential requirements makes it accessible to diverse communities of working professionals who would not otherwise be able to attend.

Providing skills training for lawyers and non-lawyers alike is legal education in the classic sense, and law schools should embrace this as part of their mission. In the United States today, there are nearly 40% fewer people attending law school than there were prior to the Great Recession.

Given developments in technology and schools’ failure to adapt to market needs, this decline is unsurprising. However, the cable industry has not suffered because people now prefer to stream and download movies and television series online. Print media is not struggling because people are no longer reading newspapers in the same ways as before. Similarly, there is no shortage of people who need to know about law, especially IP and tech law.

Like the news and entertainment industries, legal education is ripe for shaking up. In a global information economy so heavily enmeshed in intellectual property, where people are both consumers and creators of content on a daily basis, an understanding of legal principles and frameworks is more important than ever. Like other industries that have been disrupted, we have packaged legal education in a particular way that simply no longer fits the needs of many consumers. Democratising legal education for a modern market is critical for the functioning of civil society – we must embrace this or we will all lose.

Unlock unlimited access to all IAM content