Mark A. Cohen
“If you are smart and into science, go to medical school—otherwise, get a law degree” was a popular adage when I was an undergraduate. Law school was the shorter, easier route to a stable professional career, and law grads were paid handsomely for their ‘internships and residencies’ compared to their medical counterparts. Legal practice had little connection to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) back then, and law school was a popular choice for undergrads who majored in everything but hard science. The legal industry was booming and so were law schools whose cost—adjusted for inflation—was 25% of what it is now. That’s all changed, and so too has the marketability of a STEM background across multiple industries—law included. Why is a hard science background suddenly attractive to the legal vertical and why are so few STEM products opting for law school?
Legal Delivery is Becoming Tech and Data Driven—That Requires New Skillsets
Technology has become an essential component of legal delivery. The ‘practice of law’—core functions that require differentiated legal expertise—is narrowing, and the delivery of legal services—the business of law—is expanding. What does that mean? Fewer lawyers will be engaged in ‘practice’ but many new ‘legal’ jobs that combine legal knowledge and other skillsets–technology, project management, business, etc.–have been and will continue to be created.
The convergence of rapid technological advances, globalization, and the impact of the financial crisis of 2007 accelerated legal delivery’s evolution from a ‘brute force’ labor-intensive paradigm to an agile, tech and process-enabled one. These macroeconomic factors sparked corporate legal consumer activism and a reconsideration of the traditional legal buy/sell dynamic. This has affected provider market share; law firms have ceded dominance to corporatized in-house departments and elite service providers like Axiom, UnitedLex, and Elevate that excel in the business of law. These providers value and engage personnel with STEM backgrounds. Apart from a handful of patent and IT firms, a STEM background is not a differentiator on a law firm application, though. One example: when I was interviewing a young lawyer for a position at Clearspire, I asked her what she had worked on during her five-year stint at Hughes Corporation. ‘I helped build rockets,’ she replied. ‘What did you do during the four years you were an associate at an AmLaw 50 firm?’ I asked. ‘I was doing legal research and responding to discovery requests, mostly’ was the reply. Only a law firm would engage a rocket scientist this way—at $450 per hour.
A STEM background is not simply useful but is also required for a growing number of new legal industry positions. The legal industry has an acute need for STEM-trained professionals and offers enormous opportunity. It’s no surprise that many legal startups have been founded by Millennial lawyers with hard science backgrounds. They have an opportunity to help transform a huge industry and to gain market share from outdated providers (read: most law firms) that have failed to foresee and/or respond to law’s rapid digitization.
Law Schools Must Do More to Attract STEM Graduates and Revamp Curricula
One would think that the legal profession—and law schools—would make a concerted effort to draw students with STEM backgrounds into the industry. A background in math and science is not only useful in upgrading delivery capability but it is also extremely helpful in understanding the complexities of large, complex global businesses. And as law morphs from a clubby, guild-like profession based on pedigree, reputation, and stasis to a diverse, client-centric, metric-driven industry fueled by innovation, lawyers need much more than a ‘knowledge of the law’ to provide value. Even conservative State Bars recognize this; more than half mandate ‘technological awareness’ as an element of professional competency.
Law schools are no longer the magnet they once were for ‘the best and the brightest.’ There are many reasons for the law school brain drain– price, a three-year hitch (more for evening students), an avalanche of negative publicity, a dearth of high-paying legal jobs and an overall contraction of the industry, greater opportunity in other fields—notably engineering and technology, and a legal culture that is staid, hierarchical, and known for adherence to tradition, not innovation. Law schools and the profession have an image problem.
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