Columbia Law Dean on How to Train ‘Lawyers of the Future’

As we previously noted on Big Law Business, the on-campus interview process at the nation’s law schools is underway and the presence of large law firms hasn’t shown signs of abating — at least at the top schools.

In our effort to provide some insight into this year’s legal employment market, we spoke with Columbia Law School dean Gillian Lester about her views on who is taking the LSAT these days and why and how she is seeing the demand for legal skills evolve.

“Technology is huge, we should be teaching students to understand the basics of how the management of data and use of technology platforms intersect with legal practice,” she said.

Another way “we can train the lawyers of the future,” she said, “is in cross-cultural and global and multinational skills. It’s no longer accurate to say that somebody would be a domestic lawyer. Everybody in any kind of legal practice is going to encounter cross-border issues.”

Lester, who spoke with Big Law Business earlier this week, has worked in legal education since 1994. After more than a decade at UCLA and another decade at Berkeley, Lester moved to New York in 2015 to lead Columbia Law School. Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

 

Big Law Business: Have law students changed? Are different people sitting for the LSAT now than were twenty years ago?

Lester: I think that on a fundamental level, the kind of people who go to law school haven’t changed that much. I think if I were a young person today, I’d look inside myself and see the same things and I probably would choose to go to law school all over again. But the context in which law students are contemplating their futures has changed. When I went to law school and when I started teaching, the pathway into the profession was relatively unambiguous. Today it’s a radically more diverse set of opportunities, and there’s radically more mobility and transition in legal careers. They might have opportunities to move between sectors, they might move between jobs in which they’re practicing law and jobs in which they’re using their legal training to solve challenging problems but not represent clients. The likelihood of change during the course of their career is a major difference between the experience of law students today and the experience of law students even fifteen, but certainly twenty to twenty-five years ago.

gillian lester

 

BLB: Are you seeing increased interest in law school, and in certain areas? In politics, for example, or in the private sector?

Lester: Well, what we’re seeing is that more students wrote the LSAT this year. Following the financial crisis there was a dip in applications to law school and what we’re seeing is an uptick again. What I’m predicting is that we are going to see also an uptick in the number of people who come to law school who are interested in public affairs. And that’s wonderful. We at Columbia have a long tradition of sending our graduates into public life. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. On the contrary, we’ve doubled down in building pathways and counseling and programs to facilitate students engaging with public life while they’re at law school and in their career paths after they leave. That’s all part of the larger product of building leadership at Columbia.

 

BLB: You’ve said that career paths now are changing. How does Columbia shape a curriculum that helps students prepare for these changing careers?

GL: There are a number of different assets that students can build while they’re in law school. One of them is interdisciplinary training. So we’ve developed courses that are co-taught by professors in the law school and other departments on campus, and encouraged enrollment from students in both of those disciplines so they can have conversations in real time with one another, while they’re students rather than waiting until they go into practice and realize that it’s useful to talk across boundaries with people in these other fields. Technology is huge, we should be teaching students to understand the basics of how the management of data and use of technology platforms intersect with legal practice. A third way we can train the lawyers of the future is in cross-cultural and global and multinational skills. It’s no longer accurate to say that somebody would be a domestic lawyer. Everybody in any kind of legal practice is going to encounter cross-border issues. Fourth, we’ve been building a major initiative here at Columbia around leadership. We’re developing courses that break down the skills that leaders have, and take very seriously that we can teach them. We can teach students how to apply them within the context of the practice of law or the use of their law degrees. Finally, a fifth thing I think we should be incorporating into legal education for the next generation of graduates is skills around work-life balance. Managing stress, maintaining physical well-being, community ties, friendships, personal self-care. Practice shouldn’t be all or nothing.

 

 

BLB: And what kind of jobs are students coming out of law school most interested in going into?

GL: Still the overwhelming majority of our students want to begin their careers in a job in which they’re actually practicing law. I think your legal education is not done when you graduate from law school. You should work in a law office, in an agency or a government office, in which you’re representing clients. If we’ve done our job well, our students go into that phase of their careers with an idea of the possibility that they might then be looking for or experiencing change some time in that first decade. I don’t think we’re sending people out into different jobs in the first instance much more than we ever were, I think it’s more the second or the third job that might be different from what it looked like twenty to thirty years ago.

 

BLB: There seems to be a strong interest in public service among these law students. How does Columbia foster those interests?

GL: The state bar requires now that students do fifty hours of pro bono work while they’re in law school, but Columbia required that years ago, just as part of our operating ethos. I think that many people come to law school because they feel like they want to do good in society in some way. They want to make a difference. We really do a lot here at Columbia to rise to that occasion.

 

Many of our students will go work in a private sector setting. And we want to be part of the process of helping build in them a sense that you can always maintain a lifelong commitment to doing pro bono work, even while you work for paying clients doing, for example, transactional work. And if we can plant the seed for that while they’re here at Columbia we’ve really succeeded in something important.

 

Contact the writer at hmk2128@columbia.edu.

Contact the editor at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com.

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