Law School Deans, Law Schools

Corporate General Counsel Puts Fear of God into Legal Educators
(And You Should Be Worried Too)

Today I attended the Future of Education Conference, sponsored by Harvard Law School and New York Law School. New York Law School hosted a pretty interesting event. The fact schools as different as HLS and NYLS were coming together to host it (part two of the conference will be at HLS this October) is illustrative of the breadth of legal educators who are trying to deal with the declining “value proposition” of going to law school.

I’ll be doing a couple of posts on today’s conference over the next few days (you can check out my real time tweets from the event @atlblog). But I did want to share some thoughts from United Technologies‘ General Counsel, Chester Paul Beach and Gillian Hadfield, Professor of Law and Economics at USC.

Speaking during the “Apocalypse Now” session, Beach stood up and told approximately 75 law school deans and legal educators from around the country:

“We don’t allow first or second year associates to work on any of our matters without special permission, because they’re worthless.”

[Correction: The quote below has been changed from an earlier version.]

Later, on a separate panel, the USC professor pointed out how difficult that assessment was for graduating 3Ls.:

“What did Paul Beach say? “They’re worthless”.  It’s awful, it’s really really awful”

It is pretty awful for 3Ls as they prepare to set out into the market.

So the panelists pulled no punches, but did the educators get the message?

Beach was on a panel with with Paul Lippe, CEO of Legal OnRamp, and IU Law professor Bill Henderson. They kicked off the event, and clearly their goal was to get educators to understand just how unsatisfied clients and firms are with the capabilities of graduating law students. At one point Lippe said that he blames everything on law schools, while Henderson spent some time focusing on schools that graduate lawyers that “don’t want to be there.”

But it was really Beach that did the heavy lifting when it came to trying to put the fear of God into the audience. Here are some choice quotes from Beach:

* “I’m passionate about killing the billable hour.”

* “We’re actively trying to destroy the current [business] model.”

* “I want to destroy the large pyramidal law firm structure.”

And he tried to make that all resonate in the minds of the legal educators when he noted that the money which fuels the law school business model (and high law faculty salaries) “doesn’t come from law firms or lawyers.” The clear message was that clients are looking to drive down costs and that pressure will eventually show up in the bank accounts of faculty.

And just in case any associates were listening, Beach wanted to know that he was sick of them too:

I don’t mind paying [lots of money] for world class experts … but I’m not interested in the whole tail of associates that comes with world class experts.

Beach then went on to list a number of ways that his corporation was looking to cut out the necessity of associate work, like moving it offshore.

Then Lippe set him up with a question about how Beach’s crusade was driving down the salaries for students who graduate with a significant amount of law school debt. Beach responded succinctly: “It’s not my problem.”

Fair enough, but it is a problem for law schools. Because if associate salaries remain flat or go down, at some point new law students will not be willing to pay or debt finance the enormous cost of law school tuition. A GC like Paul Beach might not care if students are graduating with huge debts that they can’t pay, but law school administrators better care.

I’m not sure if the message got through though.

Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Keith Wetmore, Chairman of Morrison & Foerster, spoke on a panel later in the day. He missed the Beach smackdown. [Man crush alert: Wetmore looks like he came out of “law firm managing partner” central casting. He was classy and restrained and will be a star of a future post on today’s conference.] But when I cornered him after the panel and started telling him about what Beach had said, he cut me off before the money quote. He spoke like a man that has been through more than a couple of these “kill the billable hour” wars, and confidently said: “I’m familiar with the spiel.”

If the upshot of this conference is that law school deans become aware of an iota of the client concerns managing partners deal with every day, I’ll count that as progress.

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