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Taking Charge of Your Legal Education (For Aspiring and Practicing Attorneys)

Sam Bock

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the current state of legal education and how it can be improved upon, with perspectives from aspiring and practice attorney across many functions in the legal space. Take a look at Part 1 here.

We recently discussed the landscape of legal education for today’s—and tomorrow’s—attorneys. The consensus seems to be that, while immensely valuable in giving lawyers the critical thinking, theoretical, and communication skills they need to succeed in the field, many law school curricula aren’t providing the hands-on, practical know-how that will help new lawyers hit the ground running.

That realization may be frustrating, but as is their nature, attorneys aren’t simply accepting this gap—in fact, many are working hard to close it for future generations of lawyers.

How Law Schools are Filling the Skills Gap

It’s important to note that hope is not lost when it comes to nurturing innovative, practical lawyers right at the start: in law school.

“At Suffolk Law, we’ve worked hard not just to keep pace with the industry, but to get ahead. Beyond our well-respected legal writing, clinical, and doctrinal offerings, we created an academic concentration in Legal Innovation & Technology for our JD students to learn things like design thinking, new business models, and using software to be more efficient,” Gabriel Teninbaum, a professor and legal technologist at Suffolk University Law School, explained as an example. “We have a legal tech research-and-development lab where students work on live matters for real clients to build solutions.”

Jamy J. Sullivan, JD, executive director at Robert Half Legal, was also familiar with forward-thinking programs: “In recent years, many law schools have steadily responded to the evolving trends impacting the legal profession and the demands being placed on lawyers,” she noted.

“These schools are making fundamental curriculum changes to produce more practice-ready graduates, such as expanding coursework and offering clinical programs to equip students with legal, business and technical skills, knowledge and experience so they can deliver more immediate value to employers upon graduation,” Jamy went on. She cited Santa Clara University School of Law and the Tech Lawyer Accelerator program developed at the University of Colorado Law School as two more examples.

Current law school student Susan Sposato, attending the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, had great things to say about her program as well: “I’m really grateful for UMKC School of Law and my professors, as well as my advisor, for all they have done to help me identify and explore emerging areas of the law.”

The continued growth of the Relativity Academic Program, which provides a Relativity environment for legal educators to use in giving students hands-on skills with modern e-discovery technology, is further evidence that the tide may be turning in law school curricula round the country. More than 80 institutions now participate in the program, including several of the schools mentioned in this article.

Aspiring students will be well served to select an innovative institution, take advantage of technical and tactical course offerings, and seek in-the-field experience to bolster their resume before graduation.

How Lawyers are Filling the Skills Gap

Attorneys already in the field need not miss out on these skills, either. It’s never too late to start learning.

Our contacts had plenty of advice to share for lawyers currently in practice who want to up-level their skill sets in all of these areas.

“Be proactive. As you are planning or beginning you career, my advice would be to earn as many certifications as possible. Ideally, certifications that relate to new technologies and project management,” Nicholas Grimm, director of legal technology at Special Counsel, suggested. “These types of certifications will position you nicely for the ever-expanding role that attorneys and JDs take on in today’s industry.”

“Get busy learning something new! The skills we teach at Suffolk Law—from process improvement to Python—are things that will put people who know them at an advantage. For legal professionals who would like to learn it with us, we’ve created an online program,” Gabriel suggested. “Beyond that, if you live near Boston or are passing through, look me up and reach out—we regularly have legal innovation and tech events at Suffolk Law, and I like to have visitors spend time with our community.”

“Assess your current skill set and identify what you may be lacking to achieve your career goals—such as practice or sector experience, project management, or business development or tech skills. Then, develop a plan to gain exposure in these areas that you’ve identified to enhance your marketability,” Jamy advised. “Consider seeking out different assignments, taking on pro bono work or professional development classes, or enrolling in a certification program. Be sure to update your legal resume as you gain new skills and experience.”

“I’m a fan of creating an actionable goal to keep up with the cutting edge. For example, spend your morning commute listening to a podcast or sifting through a legal tech blog,” shared Britney Macdonald, a 2016 graduate of Chicago Kent College of Law and consultant at Point B. “I would also recommend anyone uncomfortable with networking start regularly attending such events.  Networking is a two-way street where you are seeing what you can provide to other people and vice versa.”

“I always point people to local options for learning new skills. For example, we have the ESI Forum in San Diego, started by some local judges and attorneys to educate the local bar about electronically stored information and its impact on the law,” Ruth Hauswirth, special counsel and director of litigation and e-discovery services at Cooley LLP, pointed out. “Attend events like that, look for trainings and communities online, and explore resources like those from the Sedona Conference. These are the resources that show us how tech is changing the law for the better.”

It’s that simple, according to Ruth: “Attend conferences, pick a compelling topic that you like and look up ways to explore it, and keep digging. If you don’t have the exposure you want already, find ways to supplement it.”

Being an Advocate for Your Career

When it comes down to it, lawyers are in the same position as most other professionals in the working world: they’re responsible for taking their careers in the direction they want to go.

That means deliberate planning as well as openness to change. From selecting the right school to pursuing further certifications, being choosy with CLE opportunities and engaging with the legal community, there are immeasurable ways lawyers can pursue their interests and advocate for their own growth in the wild.

What lessons have you learned while pushing the envelope for your career development? Which learning opportunities have been the most valuable for you? Let us know in the comments, or using #mylegalcareerpath on LinkedIn or Twitter. Join the conversation to give your peers a hand by pointing to your favorite resources, and pick up some career advice from admirable professionals in your field.

Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.