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Rethinking Success at Law Schools

By G. Richard Shell '81

As a Wharton faculty member with a UVA Law degree, the business of legal education is a fascinating study. The financial meltdown and recession changed entry-level hiring practices. Demand at the high end of the market remains strong, but legal employers in general have right-sized and are not expected to expand hiring anytime soon. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that roughly half of recent law school graduates now take jobs that do not require law degrees. Applications to law school are down. Lower-tier schools are scrambling to avoid a coming “shakeout.” The third year is once again under threat. Most fundamentally, the economics of the modern legal education model -- which assumes on-the-job training in the nuts and bolts of legal practice and clients willing to subsidize it by paying high fees for inexperienced associates - is crumbling.

In response, some top schools are experimenting with new value propositions. Virginia has an impressive Law & Business Program. At Penn, law students are taking classes in business school subjects such as leadership, marketing, and management. Penn Law has also partnered with the Wharton School of Business to create an intensive, accelerated JD/MBA that gets students out the door with both law and business degrees in three years.  In short, law schools are increasingly asking students to think about futures with JDs, not simply as JDs.

But as law schools transform themselves into places where smart people can go to learn “Law and ____ (fill in the blank with your favorite non-legal career),” they also need to help their students re-think what it means to have a “successful” career. In the good old days, law schools produced lawyers and success was measured in clerkships, law firm partners, corporate general counsel, judges, and U.S. Attorneys.  With law schools now trumpeting the generalized value of legal training for many diverse careers, they are in a position to help both students and alumni think creatively about what a meaningful career actually looks like these days.  Law school graduates of the future (and even a fair number right now) can expect to transition through two or even three distinct occupations during their working lives. If law schools are to help students “begin with the end in mind” (in Stephen Covey’s famous phrase), they have some work to do.

At Wharton, as part of a redesign of the MBA program, we have launched several career initiatives that might be transferable to law schools. First, we offer one-on-one leadership effectiveness coaching to every MBA – with a personalized coaching relationship that includes multiple sessions over two years. Second, we recently established what students call the “P3” initiative: Purpose, Passion, and Principles.  It is a collaboration between the coaching program and the career management office under which MBA students gather for eight consecutive weeks in small groups to work through a set of exercises and readings that challenge them to examine their long-term goals by creating their own definitions of the word “success.” This exercise forces them to see their futures not as their first job but as combinations of priorities related to family, career, happiness, and meaningful work. Facilitated by other students who have previously gone through the program, the participants engage in honest dialogue to help one another envision their futures by talking about their pasts, their passions, and their values.

More and more lawyers are being compelled to chart their careers from an “inside” perspective of talents, aptitudes, and values rather than the traditional, status-based, I-am-a-lawyer foundation. I believe law schools can provide significant value by showing students not just how to “think like a lawyer,” but also how to “think like an entrepreneur” about managing their futures. If the seeds are planted early, students may visualize life goals that go far beyond images of corner offices and courtrooms.

As alumni, we know that the conceptual rigors of legal training prepared us to excel as leaders in fields that have little or no relationship to law. Let’s share this secret with the current generation of students and encourage law schools to promote personal and professional growth in their educational programs. For the leading law schools, and perhaps especially for Virginia students, that is the lifetime value proposition.

G. Richard Shell is the Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies, Business Ethics, and Management at the Wharton School of Business. He is the creator of Wharton’s popular “Success Course” and his latest book (based on that course) is Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success (Penguin/Portfolio 2013). (See In Print.) An expert on negotiation and influence, he recently led the school-wide effort to redesign the Wharton MBA program and curriculum.