Ask the Professor

Lawyers Without Borders

How will globalization reshape the practice of law—and the training of lawyers?

Photo of David Wilkins
Photographs by Kathleen Dooher

Professor David Wilkins is focused on structural changes in the legal profession, beyond the recession.

In the wake of the current economic crisis and growing globalization, the job market for lawyers is tougher than at any time in recent history. We asked Professor David Wilkins ’80, head of HLS’s Program on the Legal Profession, how these factors will shape legal practice and education.

DW: The hope is that out of any crisis comes opportunity. In the 1930s, many of the structures of law firms that we take for granted today were—if not quite created—cemented in the heart of that economic crisis. Today I think we see many law firms experimenting with new ways of hiring, training and developing lawyers. These include firms that have eliminated the traditional associate classes in favor of models that are much more performance- and developmental-based. Some are experimenting with hiring lawyers at an entry-level position and then giving them meaningful targets that they have to make and performance standards that they have to meet and then promoting people according to their ability to meet these standards. We don’t yet know how well these new organizational forms are going to work, and whether, once the economy comes back, the interest in them will be as strong. But I think many people felt that the model of the traditional large law firm—which has existed since the turn of the 19th century—was in need of some serious rethinking, and I think this will end up being a time of important experimentation and innovation.

I’m hoping that other institutions like law schools and corporate clients and government agencies and public interest organizations will also use this opportunity as a time to rethink what they’re doing. I think it’s possible that the legal industry and its various institutions will emerge stronger from the current situation. In fact, globalization is likely to increase those opportunities, as people can think about building careers not just in their home country but ones that are truly global in nature. So long as society needs ordering and the economic system needs rational and defensible boundaries, there’s going to be a need for talented people to go into law. In fact, I think we’re likely to emerge with much more regulation to try to keep the economy and its dislocations in check and that lawyers are going to play a pivotal role in writing this regulation, in enforcing it and in helping clients to comply with it.

Photo of David Wilkins

“Many people felt that the model of the traditional large law firm … was in need of some serious rethinking.”

You were recently named the school’s first vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession. What specifically can law schools do to better prepare students?

DW: Law schools have never done an especially good job of preparing students for the realities of the job market or legal practice generally. Instead, schools have primarily concentrated on teaching students how to “think like a lawyer” and depended on employers to teach them how to be lawyers—and on students to navigate their careers on their own. Whatever its merits in an earlier era, this division of labor is no longer acceptable in a legal world that has become increasingly complex and treacherous—where new lawyers are expected to hit the ground running and traditional institutions and career paths are being transformed. Law schools owe it to our students, our alumni and the public at large to attempt to understand how the legal profession is changing in response to larger economic, political, and social forces and to devise new ways for preparing lawyers to navigate and thrive in this dynamic environment.

Dean Martha Minow has charged me with evaluating how the school currently connects to the profession, and working with a committee of my colleagues, to develop new ways to prepare our students for their careers. The school has already launched a series of initiatives, including a new Problem Solving course, which will begin in January for all first-year students, using in-depth case studies that place students in realistic lawyering contexts; an effort to more fully integrate what students learn in our excellent clinical offerings into the broader curriculum; and the Harvard Law School Career Study, initiated by the Program on the Legal Profession in 2008, which should help us incorporate information about alumni careers into the shaping of the curriculum.

It’s true that the economic downturn has highlighted problems with the recruiting process at this school and across the country for those going into law firms and public interest employment. The school has already taken steps to help [see sidebar]—but we are taking a hard look at our placement processes and more broadly how they contribute to problems for law students entering the profession.

To open up that sort of national and international conversation, we are planning a conference on rethinking legal education involving top educators, professionals, and policymakers in this country and abroad to investigate and identify best practices around the globe and to discuss how law schools can and should both respond to and help to shape the changing structure of legal careers and institutions.

Needless to say, these efforts are in their early stages, but we believe they are important steps in helping our students navigate the complex boundaries of today’s dynamic legal environment.

New strategies for a changing job market

In both the public and private sectors, Harvard Law students are facing a tougher job market than in recent memory. This year’s graduating class will see only 80 percent of the firms that participated in the on-campus recruitment process last year return, according to Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services. Meanwhile, starting salaries are down and deferred starting dates are up.

Photo of David Wilkins

Students on their way to interviews this August as part of the early interview program. A week before classes started, 12,000 interviews took place.

The public sector has also taken an economic hit, says Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service at the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising. Nonprofits and government offices at state and local levels have become more competitive, she says. “The federal government and a few other places are bright spots, but overall the market—and the public sector in particular, which was pretty competitive to begin with—has been affected.”

Both the Office of Career Services and the OPIA have been responding to the tough job market with a number of initiatives.

One of the most visible changes to the recruiting process has been the schedule: Interviews began in late August, almost two months earlier than in years past, and there will be another round in the spring.

In October, Dean Martha Minow announced the establishment of the Holmes Public Service Fellowships, which will fund one year of public service work for approximately 12 graduating students during 2010-11. The fellowships will pay up to $35,000 to support a year of postgraduate legal work at a nonprofit or government agency anywhere in the world. It supplements a range of programs that make it easier for students and alumni to work in the public interest. According to Shabecoff, the experience that such fellowships provide students often makes them significantly more competitive as candidates for jobs afterward.

Meanwhile, OCS and OPIA have been marshaling resources for students—Shabecoff noted increased advising hours and more outreach to employers. And both offices had a packed series of employment-related events and workshops in the fall—including a major career forum weekend and a series of online career advising “webinars,” scheduled by OCS.

The alumni relations department is also assisting current students by connecting them with graduates, teaming up with OCS and OPIA to launch HLS Connect, an alumni advising network portal. As of early November, more than 300 students had registered for the online networking tool.

—A.B.

To sign up for HLS Connect, go to the Networking and Careers website.


Next: On the Bookshelves: Fighting on Several Fronts