Bill Henderson (Indiana Law) consistently produces top-quality empirical work on the legal academy and the legal profession. In a recent piece in the National Jurist, he describes research he and others have done into what makes a successful lawyer and predicts that the model in which increasingly large law firms hire exclusively from the top law schools cannot survive. His basic point is that the things law schools measure in making admissions decisions (LSAT and UGPA) and the things they teach their matriculated students (legal reasoning and doctrine) do not correlate with the attributes required for success as a practicing attorney. He contends that lawyers need to be intelligent, but also “personable, collaborative, entrepreneurial, service oriented, and interested in contributing to the collective welfare of the firm.” He offers data suggesting that high LSATs and UGPAs are not predictors of these talents and restates the familiar criticism that law schools do not teach them. He posits that a new hierarchy of law schools will emerge as a result of an inevitable transition away from the traditional model.
I hope he’s right. Nothing would make me happier than to see law firms look for a greater range of skills, including many of the kinds of skills we emphasize in teaching dispute resolution, such as collaboration, emotional intelligence, and the ability to negotiate. I wouldn’t be disappointed if large law firms (and others) began to look for talent at law schools outside the top 14 (particularly those that emphasize dispute resolution). But I confess to skepticism, for several reasons. First, until US News changes its formula, most law schools will continue to place heavy emphasis on LSAT and UGPA, regardless of the consequences for the legal profession. Second, the brands of the top schools are very, very strong. Legal recruiters and lawyers bidding for clients will always feel safe if they can point to top law school credentials of their lawyers. It’s much riskier to “gamble” on graduates of lower-ranked schools, no matter what skills they bring to the table. And finally, sorting people by their LSATs and GPAs is easy. It is much harder to figure out who has emotional intelligence and the ability to work collaboratively.
I know it is fashionable these days to predict huge changes in the legal profession, with firms shrinking, technology replacing much low-end legal work, and outsourcing sending previously lucrative document review to India. I have challenged some of those predictions elsewhere. Social institutions do not always do what makes sense, especially when entrenched interests and structural impediments hinder change.