Keys to Law Firm Success and Core Career Credentials for Law Students
A Future Law Perspective
John G. Kelly
In short, in serving clients today, it’s not enough simply to know how something is usually done; you have to come up with ways that it could be done far better, faster and cheaper, and ideally in a way that makes the recipient feel special- all of which generally require both specialization and collaboration.
Collaboration by specialists is the key to success in professional services. That’s the central theme and message reiterated time and again by Heidi K. Gardner, Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, in her recently published very reader friendly treatise. I use the word treatise advisedly. The author has an enviable professional services background with global consultancies combined with extensive collaborative research. The advance praise on the front and back jacket cover of the book contains an impressive list of luminaries from the legal and related consulting professions. This is a must read.
In the legal services market the era of the “dabbler”, the “lone wolf” senior partner in a law firm with the enviable client list who operates on an “eat what you kill” philosophy, and pushes themselves on to clients in areas where their expertise is limited is over. Gardner’s extensive track record with global consulting firms and enviable research access to major law firms has enabled her to provide readers with concise case studies on how the best and brightest of lawyers and leading edge law firms have recognized the reality of the 21st century legal services market and what they’re doing to succeed. Lawyers are being enrolled in intensive professional development programs to equip them with credible expertise credentials. These go way beyond way the traditional one and two – day short survey seminars. The traditional law firm practice management pyramid silo architecture and operational framework is being modified and integrated into innovative client focused collaborations.
Moreover, these leaders in the legal services market are finding that to compete with the “Big Four” consultancies, who are aggressively entering the legal services market that extends beyond the confines of the practice of law, they need to expand their human capital beyond the traditional JD degree holder.
One law firm that I’ve worked with maintains a staff of young MBA hotshots who have at least a passing acquaintance with the law, but also know a ton about the business realities of various economic sectors. In early client meetings, the lawyer in charge of the client relationship always brings along one or more of these whiz kids to help the clients sort through opportunities and figure out what impending changes- including non-legal ones- may mean for the company.
But won’t these young hot shots be disgruntled and feel marginalized in not being able to get on the associate ladder and eventually become a partner because they don’t have a JD and can’t be accredited as practising lawyers? Far from it. These are the millennials. Research suggests that “millennials want to be able to make independent decisions and choose their own path”. They’re not interested in going to law school to obtain a JD and becoming practice ready. They want to pursue professional opportunities as client capable service providers. So long as a law firm provides them with a collaborative professional opportunity that’s a match for their expertise they’ll work in a law firm. If they see a more challenging rewarding opportunity that interests them they’ll gravitate towards it. This is the new creative class of professionals who are intent on carving out their own careers in peer to peer (P2P) mutually supportive independent collaborative networks.
Welcome to the world of the millennials with their Silicon Valley mentality. Gardner, among others are finding that the best and brightest of this new creative class are increasingly less attracted to traditional professional careers like law and the conventional JD jurisprudential model of legal education.
Fewer and fewer people are applying to law schools. And although the elite law schools are still getting roughly the same number of applicants, the quality of those applicants appears to be dropping. Some data also suggest that many of those scoring the highest on the LSATs (U.S. law school entrance exams) don’t even apply to law school.
In summation, law schools have got to “get with the program” and gravitate to a professional education model that embraces the combination of specialization and collaboration that Gardner is advocating and leaders in the law firm community are embracing. The JD does provide students with a framework of solid professional learning experiences. However, according Gardner and others, it’s in need of an added value intensive multidisciplinary learning experience. The “Combined JD/LLM” integrated three-year degree is the solution. Two years of graduate legal education supplemented by one year of post graduate multi-disciplinary LLM level education that combines law with a learning experience that requires intensive collaborative research and out of the envelope lateral thing will attract those best and brightest into legal education and provide the legal profession with the new generation of 21st century legal services providers.
Most savvy and ambitious professionals today understand that it’s in their economic interests to become truly expert at one topic. Ideally, that one topic is both arcane (in the sense of not being easily learned) and critically important (meaning there’s a market for this skill).
 Heidi K. Gardner, Smart Collaboration. Boston. Harvard University Press. (2016) at P 35.
 Ibid at P 213
 Ibid at P 59
 ibid at P.58.
 Ibid at P6.