When law school graduates receive news that they successfully passed the Bar Exam, the next big step to becoming a practicing attorney is to be sworn in. Here in North Carolina, hundreds of soon-to-be lawyers walk into their local courthouse and swear before a judge, other attorneys, and friends and family to meet a certain standard required of them under the law. One of the several oaths reads, “I swear that I will truly and honestly demean myself in the practice of an Attorney, according to the best of my knowledge and ability, so help me God.”
While the oath bears great significance to those beginning their practice of law, what does this oath really mean for their future clients and employers? What knowledge and abilities are these recent graduates promising to bring with them as they embark on their new careers? More importantly, what knowledge and ability must they bring to the table in order to be successful in the 21st century practice of law? Many practicing attorneys are skeptical whether law schools adequately prepare their students for the actual challenges they will face as lawyers.
While lawyering skills may have been enough many years ago, things are changing and simply being a “good” lawyer won’t cut it.
According to Jordan Furlong, creator of Law21 blog, until now, the necessary and sufficient skill set for lawyers included analytical ability, attention to detail, logical reasoning, persuasiveness, sound judgment, and writing ability. If you possessed these six skills you were entirely qualified to practice law, but Furlong believes these skills are no longer enough.
Collaboration skills and emotional intelligence are now vital, expected skills of attorneys. The ability to collaborate is more than working well with a team. It means “the whole surpasses the sum of the parts” in order to reach optimal client outcome. As Jordan Furlong puts it, “Collaborative lawyers trust the wisdom of the group; lone wolves and isolationists don’t do any good anymore.”
While most attorneys can easily see how working collaboratively could benefit their practice, attorneys are generally more skeptical about concepts such as emotional intelligence. Many lawyers are taught early in their education and practice to detach themselves emotionally from their cases and clients in order to offer the best advice. Furlong argues this notion is “idiotic.” Whether we are dealing with our clients or colleagues, we have a duty to give them our empathy, perspective, and personal connection. In order to feel whole and satisfied, clients need us to listen. “Distant, detached lawyers are relics of the 20th century—the market no longer wants a lawyer who’s only half a person,” Furlong notes.
Another skill Furlong believes is necessary in the 21st century is technological affinity. Many critics claim too many lawyers pride themselves on their IT incompetency. Several older attorneys are set in their ways and convinced that technology and successful lawyering are in no way related. “Lawyers have grown accustomed to going unchallenged on their technological backwardness, and even tech-savvy new lawyers eventually succumb to firms’ glacial pace of tech adaptation,” says Furlong. In order to be effective as an attorney in the 21st century, you have to be able to use e-mail, the Internet, and various forms of communication. Remaining ignorant to the changing times just is not an option anymore.
Even before the turn of the century, Duke Law published an essay, “The Responsibility of Law Schools: Educating Lawyers as Counselors and Problem Solvers” by Paul Brest, depicting the change in law from a profession with a public calling to a business with sharp practices. While law schools are strengthening in their ability to teach legal analysis and litigation skills, they remain weak in teaching other skills lawyers need “as counselors, problem solvers, negotiators, and as architects of transactions and organizations.” Although this article was published in 1995—almost 20 years ago—and it posits a fear that lawyers were not evolving with the rest of the world. Brest writes, “The problem is not that legal education has become too adventurous, but that it has changed so little to meet the needs of a changing society.”
The article discusses the need for lawyers to apply more than a legal analysis to cases. Lawyers need to be able to take a client’s problem and solve it—and usually that problem will reach far beyond the confines of an attorney’s technical expertise. The essay further explains the need for lawyers to be problem solvers, decision makers, planners and negotiators. These skills might sound obvious and many new graduates, along with veteran attorneys, may think they already possess these skills, but if these skills are not taught in law school and if practicing attorneys are not using and refining these skills regularly, when do they learn and put them to use?
The same issue was addressed more recently in a report published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching titled, “Educating Lawyers—Preparation for the Profession of Law.” This report emphasizes what many critics have said for quite some time: “law schools have focused too much on teaching students to think like lawyers and not enough on applying those thinking skills in the complexity of professional practice or on other critical social skills necessary for effective practitioners.”
For many law students, their legal education is not exactly what they had once pictured. Every year, bright-eyed 1Ls across the nation enter law school in hopes of becoming equipped to help others and ensure justice is served. Unfortunately, most first-year law students are given endless amounts of case law, judicial opinions, and develop ability to analyze with agonizing detail. While analysis is vital, legal analysis is only one small component of what being a lawyer is all about. The Carnegie Foundation Report reveals that most students agree this “training sometimes seems distant from the goal of learning how to talk to clients and other lawyers, understand their problems, and generate and implement useful solutions.”
According to the Report, law schools have been using the same evaluative tools for generations. These evaluative tools include single-essay exams at the end of a semester, the results of which are used to rank students. While these tools are helpful in developing legal analysis skills, they do not provide the necessary feedback for students to improve on fundamental skills.
Over the past few decades, law schools have attempted to address this problem by providing students with the opportunity to participate in clinical programs and externships. Campbell Law School, for example, offers its students a chance to participate in the Juvenile Justice Project and the Senior Law Clinic. Each clinic lasts an entire semester and allows students to gain hands-on experience in providing consultations and legal services to clients. Students learn the importance of forming relationships with their clients and are able to see first-hand that being a successful lawyer requires more than legal analysis and litigation skills. The externship program allows students to work at places such as a District Attorney’s Office or the North Carolina Supreme Court, where they can see every aspect of a trial, from meeting a witness or a client for the first time, to appearing before a judge and a jury.
These programs take students out of the classroom and put them into the practice of law, giving them the opportunity to learn early on that lawyering skills simply are not sufficient. They learn to work with others to meet a common goal. They learn to get to know their clients and truly take an interest in client problems. They are able to see that the law does not come merely from a book—it involves interacting with others on many different levels whether in the courtroom, over lunch, or via e-mail.
So what can new attorneys expect as they begin their careers? When they are sworn in, what are they promising to their future clients? Ideally, they will put to good use their three years of education, but the reality is that much of what will be expected of these new lawyers will be skills they have likely not been taught. Schools can help eliminate this problem by implementing more programs that give students hands-on experience and go beyond how to analyze a court opinion, ace a multiple choice or essay exam, or litigate in a mock trial. These skills are vital and will always be necessary in the practice of law, but as times change, other skills become equally as important.
The definition of a lawyer is constantly changing, and when we are sworn in we take an oath to practice to the best of our knowledge and ability. This means lawyering skills are absolutely not enough. If new attorneys, and veteran attorneys, take what they learn in the classroom and add those valuable skills to what is now required of lawyers in the 21st century, there will be a substantial change in the legal profession—a change that will benefit the legal community and more importantly, those whom we seek to help.