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What is the future of law degrees?

Law school is currently a mandatory requirement, a rung on the ladder along the journey to becoming a practising lawyer, a rite of passage for students of law. Times are changing, however, and it is increasingly recognized that while law school provides legal knowledge it does not help build the necessary practical skills that are such an important part of being a lawyer. 

The profession is transforming. As with other business sectors, legal is being increasingly influenced by technology, and traditional working practices are either under threat or changing due to the arrival of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Contract AI, streamlining workflow systems, and e-billing software are a few of the technological advances creating significant time savings for lawyers. Management consultancy company McKinsey estimates that 23 percent of work done by lawyers could be automated by existing technology. Which poses the questions: How will future tech change the legal profession, and what is the future of law degrees? 

The flow-on effect of the digitization of law is that the expectations for a lawyer are changing. Not only do they need to have an innate understanding of the law and its application, they must also have a diverse skill set that incorporates technological savvy, people skills and, in the case of in-house lawyers, commercial acumen. 

You have probably heard of the term T-Shaped lawyer, ie the lawyer who has a multidisciplinary skill set beyond straight legal knowledge. The increasing demand for the T-shaped lawyer is a direct result of the changing nature of our business. As a society, and inevitably as workplaces become digitized, the way we work and our roles, is changing. Digital skills are becoming a basic requirement for any role, from a lawyer to a marketing manager. The reality is that we are increasingly reliant on technological platforms to execute our work.

So how does this affect law degrees, you may be thinking? It means that law schools need to adapt and mold their curriculum to not only teach legal theory but to prepare their students for the reality of work, and that means giving them the technological skills they need.  

Jason Xu, Junior Corporate Counsel and Legal Operations at Veolia Australia and New Zealand, shares this perspective. During his time at law school, he found that the only way to learn how to be a lawyer was on the job, and that required clerkships. The Catch-22 of this situation is that for many students the actuality of finding a clerkship is neither easy nor, or in some cases, feasible. Clerkships are often unpaid - an insurmountable hurdle for many students. And yet without a clerkship on your CV, a graduate job is hard to come by. Xu says: “I think there is a lot of responsibility on universities. If they're going to promote a law degree as the only way you can be a lawyer, they need to provide the resources to teach how to be a lawyer instead of just teaching the law.” 

The severity of this situation differs from country to country, but it is perhaps most pertinent in America. The cost of law school in the USA has increased significantly in the past two decades. The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports that between the 1999-2000 school year and the 2015-2016 school year, the average student debt total increased by 77 percent among law school graduates, from $82,400 to $145,500.

As published by Harvard, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis had a considerable impact on the legal job market in America. “Firms, facing sharp drops in revenue, tightened their belts, reduced hiring, and famously funded many first-year associates’ work in less costly public service positions for a year to cut costs. The hiring market contracted considerably.” 

Since 2010, applications for law school have dramatically dropped. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of applications dropped from 95,800 to 55,700 - nearly in half. Those taking the LSAT have also dropped by a similar proportion since 2009. According to Harvard, law school application rates haven’t been so low since the 1960s. 

Combine increasing tuition costs with fewer job positions and law school is increasingly out of favour in America. People who may have opted to study law are instead looking at other degree options which promise better job prospects, perhaps business, engineering, or arts. NCES US statistics report that the largest volume of degrees conferred from 2018-19 was in the following order: business, health professions, social sciences and history, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, and psychology. 

Yet, a corporate role with a legal twist doesn’t have to be out of the question. As legal roles evolve, some companies are realizing the benefits of looking at a wider pool of candidates than just law graduates. Having a practising certificate and being an admitted lawyer is often regarded as a necessity, but for certain in-house roles this isn’t always the case. 

Stephen Drysdale, In-house Counsel at ZURU, says: “There are definitely roles where you don't necessarily need an admitted lawyer. You can have someone with the right skill set, be it corporate secretary management, corporate governance or IP management, and that is already happening in  firms.” 

Although the assumption still exists that having a legal background saves time on training on the job, as in-house roles become more tech focused and require more than just legal aptitude, this isn’t always true. Hiring people who have life and academic experience beyond the legal world can provide a diversity of thought to a team - and that’s an invaluable asset. 

So, what is the future of law degrees? It is fair to assume that if universities and their law schools want to keep up with the modern workforce, they must adjust their curriculum to provide more practical skills, both technological and legal. They could help create a clearer pathway to clerkships and graduate roles for their students rather than being all about theory and no work experience. 

If bright young minds fail to see the value in studying law, their concerns about taking on massive student debt without any job certainty once they’ve completed their degrees overriding their interest in a legal career, a dearth of university-trained lawyers seems a future certainty. It’s beholden on the legal profession to come up with options, to seriously consider ways in which legal training can be done on the job.

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