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The Difference Between Law Schools and Law Firms

Today, law firms and law schools share a lot of similarities, but are ultimately, very different.

There are separate cultures that have developed between legal education and legal practice over the years. Law schools have a strong theoretical strain that seems more like what you would expect from one of the social sciences than from a professional school - they are solely in the business of teaching students the rudiments of the legal profession.

Randy Gordon, partner, Gardere sat down with Inside Counsel to discuss the separate cultures that have developed between legal education and legal practice, and how law firms are seeking further collaboration with law schools to ensure that new graduates are “practice-ready.”

Traditionally, law schools taught students to "think like a lawyer," which entails learning legal rules, learning to apply legal rules to facts, and learning to make fine distinctions between different rules and different facts. However, there has been a recent move to give students more experiential learning opportunities, which range from practical classroom exercises to full-blown legal clinics.

“It's not like med school. I'm not saying it should be, but some find it odd that one learns to be a lawyer mostly from people who don't have much (sometimes any) practice experience,” explained Gordon.

Today, law firms are looking for further collaboration with law schools to ensure that new graduates are "practice-ready.” According to Gordon, if graduates are looking to work at a large law firm, the best thing a school can do is make those folks do deep analytical writing all the time.

“Law firms have attempted to push training obligations back onto law schools and implemented professional development programs to accelerate new lawyers' integration into practice,” he explained. “The attempt to push things back onto law schools comes in the form of the "practice-ready" drumbeat you read in the press. Alums complain. Hiring partners complain. Law schools react by making curricular changes, adding clinics, etc.”

There are limits to what law schools can do without it becoming outrageously expensive. And, it’s going to be several more years before the large-law-firm model settles back down into more predictable patterns. A great program requires a dedicated, competent staff and reliance on consultants.

So, what is the solution to this problem?

“Firm management has to decide that the benefit is greater than the cost,” said Gordon. “When I ran our development program, we slowed associate attrition by a couple of years, very profitable years. That resonated with some people. But, it's hard to put a finger on value. It's like business development dollars in some ways--i.e., which dollars actually result in increased revenue?”

About 25 years ago, there was not a national market structure and salary scale for new talent like there is now. In fact, when Gordon graduated law school, New York City was at $83K, Dallas at $56K, Kansas City at $50K. Nowadays, many firms in the AMLAW 200 even pay NYC starting salaries. Per Gordon, this means that new lawyers are billed at rates much higher than 25 years ago, causing pushback from clients, many of whom refuse to pay for training first and second year lawyers. Consequently, there are fewer opportunities for new lawyers to learn-by-watching.

He said, “This is exacerbated by firms focusing on premium work and no longer having small cases and transactions that used to be handled by very junior lawyers. So, the options are to provide expensive simulations via a development program, eat the time for taking associates along to meetings, depositions, etc., or try to push more training onto law schools.”

Contributing Author

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Amanda Ciccatelli

Amanda G. Ciccatelli is a Freelance Journalist for InsideCounsel, where she covers intellectual property, legal technology, patent litigation, cybersecurity, innovation, and more. She earned a B.A....

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