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November 4, 2013

Roundtable with chief legal officers

by Dan Rodriguez

I had a meeting with a group of prominent chief legal officers (CLOs)in Chicago last week.  The topic was “the changing law schools.”  We had a good dialogue about the shifting dynamics of the legal market and the reforms underway in law schools.

Much of the focus was on how to operationalize the objective of skills training and practice readiness among our graduates.  The agenda of CLOs is slightly different than traditional law firms.  They want graduates who have a deep sense of the business operations of the companies for which they work — in particular, the skills to implement business plans through legal advice and counsel and the ability to translate legal information within the organization.  Lawyers are often seen by C-suite executives as obstacles as impediments; a skillful legal offices will communicate both the information and also the value of their legal service.  In doing so, they will advance — and will be seen as advancing — the business objectives of the corporation.

Among the skills critical for these tasks are teamwork, leadership, and quantitative reasoning.  In the “olden” days, these skills might have been see as emerging from undergraduate experience or perhaps business school.  Now CLOs are rightly expecting law schools to provide an admixture of these skills.  The development of business competencies emerging in leading law schools (in addition to Northwestern, both Chicago and Penn have taken important strides in this regard) is a critical piece of this puzzle.

Despite the emphasis on practical skills in the legal curricula, these CLOs also stressed that they are looking for young lawyers who have foundational, comprehensive legal skills of the sort that ambitious law schools have hard-wired into their curricula.  They, too, want law schools to engage in the classic enterprise of training students “to think like lawyers.”

One last observation:  CLOs admitted that they were unlikely to turn their attention in any systematic way to hiring new graduates.  Their marketplace is typically an early lateral one.  They want lawyers who have experience in law firms, experience they can bring to bear in the organizational setting of a general counsel office.  Law schools ought not to view this fact as an excuse for ignoring the in-house counsel venue.  We should train our students for their early careers, not simply for their first job.  And the conversation between CLOs and law schools will become ever more constructive as we think harder about the nexus between law school curricula, core competencies, and the evolving marketplace.

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