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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Rethinking legal education

By Ed Poll

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at [email protected] Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at

It’s no secret that law school does little to prepare young lawyers for practice realities in any size law firm. And now it has become increasingly clear that reality is catching up to law schools.

According to The New York Times, law school admissions for the upcoming 2013 academic year are headed for a 30-year low (down 20 percent from last year and 38 percent from 2010), a decline driven by student worries about rising tuition, equally soaring debt load and the prospect of unemployment after graduation.

A follow-up story in the same newspaper said that some are calling for radical changes to the legal education system, including cutting the curriculum, requiring far more on-the-ground training and licensing technicians who are not full lawyers. But this same story points out the real reason for the problem: “the vested interests of tenured professors tied to an antiquated system.”

The dynamic between law schools and bar associations to maintain the profession’s status quo suggests that tweaking tuition or curriculum is likely all the change that can be expected from the law school side. But this should not be a dead end for legal education.

Every law school graduate who is fortunate enough to have a law firm job should realize that keeping that job in today’s business environment is a personal responsibility, not a function of having a certificate that proclaims one to be a J.D.

Given that realization, there are certain steps for firms to help associates become self-reliant in furthering their own legal education.

The first step is institutional. Law firms increasingly are servicing clients with teams (not just a single rainmaker), and adding associates to those teams according to a strategic plan. Training associates to develop business according to a personal marketing plan, and giving bonuses to those who get results, is essential. With this opportunity to grow business development opportunities, associates can develop a book of business that justifies making them partners.

The next step, too often neglected, is to help associates with administrative staff. Law firm administrators with marketing involvement can help young lawyers develop status reports and client surveys that effectively communicate to clients how the young lawyer is handling a matter and ask for input. Administrators can also help set up an informal client visitation schedule, or other business development efforts using client relationship management software and database systems. Administrators know that today’s successful associates will be tomorrow’s partners, so they will be eager to help.

The final step is one of attitude. Associates should wean themselves away from relying on rainmakers and build the ability to develop business. The hurdle here is helping associates develop “resiliency,” the ability to bounce back from criticism or rejection. Even successful sales people will frequently meet rejection, but their focus is always on achieving the next “yes” rather than dwelling on the last “no.

Given that associates typically have little or no exposure to this sort of thinking, the only way they will acquire it is building up confidence by doing, through opportunities that the firm provides. Associates who pursue such opportunities and the lessons they offer are the associates with the best chance to be tomorrow’s partners.

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