Learning The (Business Lawyer) Ropes – 21st Century Style
When I first started my career, I was a young business lawyer at a great firm in WNY. I had just graduated from school, and was fortunate enough to have received an offer from the Firm where I worked as a summer associate. (Sadly, I’m told that the clerk-to-associate path is no longer the fairly clear route that it once was.)
I loved law school and business school. Like a lot of my peers at the time, I did the JD/MBA “two-fer” and take a little pride in saying I was good at it – at least insofar as good is measured by honors, grades and whatnot. That experience translated into feeling fairly well-trained, reasonably educated, and moderately confident to embark on my career.
That said, it probably took all of 15 minutes “in practice” to discover the cavernous difference between succeeding in school and being a good professional. Back then (early ‘90s), being a junior associate in a corporate department meant cutting one’s teeth on incorporations, basic closing documents, fairly “standard” contracts, and periodically getting a chance to sit down with one of the senior partners and take notes on a conference call. Luckily, I had very patient, experienced and ridiculously smart partners – and an amazing support team – to work for and learn from. (Thank you Chris, Bob, Greg, Gust, Anthony, Bill, Dan, Ken, Priscilla, Kelly, Barb, and many others.) I got the chance to pick up on how Chris resolved a tricky deal point, or how Bob could cleverly draft a lease provision in a way that made both sides happy. Learning by “supervised doing”; learning by watching how it’s done.
That’s primarily how my class learned, how we got experience. After a few years, I assembled my own customized “form book” (comprised then of a 3-ring binder with photocopied samples), and started working on more advanced things. A lifelong techie, that was right about the time when I was starting to store everything on disks while I ran up ridiculous bills chatting on AOL and sending e-mails. Soon thereafter, I was off to work in the technology business, taking a seat on the other side of the attorney-client relationship. Little did I know that I might’ve been one of the last of the dinosaurs, in the sense of being trained in the classic “junior associate” way.
Now, as Richard Susskind and others have pointed out, technology is rapidly making all these “teeth cutting” opportunties completely obsolete. Young lawyers face an extremely tough labor market as it is, many are either forced to immediately hang out a shingle (sooner than most might want) or work in a Firm environment where they’re often expected to be able to hit the ground running at full speed. Clients aren’t accepting even a hint of “training” priced into their bill, and work once handled almost exclusively by outside junior lawyers is now often managed completely in-house.
In the face of rapidly emerging disruptive technology, where does a young transactional lawyer get the critical practical experience necessary to become a really good “deal person”?
The issue was recently addressed in “Law 2.0: Intelligent Architecture For Transactional Law”, an event that was part of the Silicon Flatirons Roundtable Series onn Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Public Policy.
Recognizing that clients want “value-adding” lawyers, and that it takes skills and judgment to deliver such services, several suggestions were offered. One that I thought sounded particularly interesting was a “Moot Court” for deal work. Another cool idea was a multiplayer video game, like a “Second Life” for legal issues. Certainly clinics and seminar-level courses at law schools can also be instructive, but nothing replaces the experience one gains from helping clients work through real problems and help them close real deals.
As legal technology continues to evolve – from document assembly to project management to embedded legal knowledge (e.g. documents that are physically designed to automatically prevent non-compliance) – alternative methods of training must evolve as well. Will larger Firms simply choose to simply absorb the costs of training, potentially using gains realized by technology to offset those additional costs? How will all of this impact upon the general quality of legal services available 10, 20 years out, if at all?
I suspect that ultimately this presents another exciting opportunity for law schools, practicing lawyers, and technology providers to proactively work closer together, designing and testing new technology-driven training solutions – as opposed to what has arguably been a general pattern of technology independently charging forward and then encouraging adoption.