Superwomen JDs Interviews the Law School Industry Czar

Since 1990 Ron Fox has: provided individual guidance to lawyers in transition seeking positions consistent with their personal values and their professional goals through Career Planning for Lawyers; posted on his Lawyer Satisfaction Blog ; consulted to over 25 law schools, including Cornell, Boston College, Notre Dame and Northwestern; presented workshops for the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Lawyers in Transition; created and facilitated the ABA Public Service Division's "Town Meeting" for the six Washington D.C. law schools; authored Lawful Pursuit Careers in Public Interest Law published by the ABA Law Student Division; and is the Career Resource on Solo Practice University.
Ron graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963 and practiced law in a variety of settings for 20 years including two law firms he founded. In 1974 he was one of the first providers of divorce mediation and was active in developing that field until 1990.  Working with bar associations, he designed and created numerous lawyer referral and other programs aimed at the delivery of legal services to low and middle income individuals.  From 1983-1989 Ron worked at Harvard Law School providing career planning services to law students pursuing careers serving the legal needs of the public and also co-founded the Public Interest Committee of NALP.

1) If you were to accept a deanship at a law school right now, what would your top three priorities be?

I would think about it as a lawyer school as opposed to a law school.  We need to combat the fact that law schools have been a place of self-interest for a long time working on behalf of law school personnel and the partners at big law firms.  We are going to make them work for the public.  I would focus on the four fundamental values of the legal profession compiled in the MacCrate Report- authored by prominent judges, lawyers and professors.  Everyone should read this, especially those thinking about going to law school.  We are going to try to integrate those four values into the curriculum. 

One is to be committed to providing zealous representation. You have to learn to practice law.  I would not rely on the LSAT anymore. We would not even going to look at those numbers.  I would put together a group that would develop a range of criteria including creativity, integrity, and honesty.  I would survey incoming students and ask them what they want to do with their legal degree.  Suppose 90 percent want to represent individuals, we would teach the skills they need to do so competently focusing especially on those skills compiled in the MacCrate Report as necessary to practice law such as problem solving, communication, counseling, negotiation, practice management and resolving ethical issues. 

We would need to find faculty with the experience to teach the skills.  A typical professorial candidate might be from a small firm and have several years of experience.  We would then revise the course catalog, which would be annotated by the skills taught in that course.  Students would immediately decide on what we would call a major.  For example, if someone wants to do family law- we would then suggest appropriate term time work, courses and summer work aimed at your being a full time family law practitioner with the confidence you need to practice upon graduation. 

2) An argument has been made that schools that attempt to alter their curriculum away the academics have lost some of their most talented, academically focused faculty members.  What are your thoughts on this?

I agree that you might lose some of your academic faculty; however, we would give them the opportunity to learn those skills, just like any other evolving business model.  We can’t afford to have people just doing research. We need to teach people how to practice law.  If you have the experience, you will then keep your position.  The first year would be devoted to teaching students how to think like a lawyer and include legal research and writing.  The second year would be experiential - not clinical.  The teaching methods at most law schools are archaic.  Education is about a teacher presenting an idea and a concept, the student having an opportunity to show that he or she has grasped the concept and the teacher then evaluating the performance. A clinic is one form of experiential course but it is expensive.  I am not a teacher but I have read enough about education to know that the third year is unnecessary and will be eliminated. We need to have faculty with practice experience..

3) What key skills should law schools, such as Washington & Lee, that are revamping their third year curriculum, focus on when developing their programs to make their students more marketable?

The skills are those referred to above in the MacCrate Report.  The MacCrate Reports notes that the two skills (of the ten needed) taught in law schools, legal research and writing are taught using inadequate teaching methods. Even these need to incorporate experiential components.

In addition, however, I would also like the school to focus on the values of the legal profession.  I think the skills are very important but the values also need to be taught.  For example, another one of the fundamental values not taught is the commitment on the part of the lawyer to take a position consistent with his or her professional goals and personal values. Career planning incorporates that value. A lawyer should actively CHOOSE a career not be passively placed.  Even knowing your values is inadequate unless you know your options – the wide range of settings in which lawyers practice.
A third fundamental value is the obligation to pursue justice, both social and economic. Students need to learn how urgent the need is for legal services among those of low and middle income. We need to teach not only the skills but the values of the profession.

4) Do you think establishing something similar to a medical residency program for attorneys could help provide legal services to the overwhelming majority of the public that cannot afford them? 

What we are really facing is that the law school graduates do not have the confidence or the knowledge to go out and represent people.  Even the 90% in selective law schools and the 10% in other schools who get jobs in BigLaw get very little training in law school on how to practice law. A recent survey done by the ABA, After the JD survey, shows much unhappiness and dissatisfaction in BigLaw. The survey studied 5000 associates since the year 2000 and 59 percent from the top ten law schools expect and hope to change jobs within the next two  years.  They don’t want to be where they were “funneled”. When they leave they believe they have learned few useful transferable skills, don’t know their options and don’t know where to look or what to do. While in law school, learn about small firms and the fact that 66 percent of all lawyers in private practice are in firms of 5 or less lawyers. Learn how to practice law by working in small firms while you are in law school. By the time you graduate, you will likely have a position in a small firm and feel confident about your ability to practice there. (From 1984-1988, of 2500 graduates of Harvard Law School, only FOUR had the confidence to go out and do something on their own and NOT become employees. Two started City Year. 

5) Most of us have watched our parents be loyal to large companies and not get the same loyalty in return.  Do you think part of the increased tendency to change jobs is generational? 

I have been doing this and watching these surveys for 30 years, and they all say that substantial percentages of lawyers are unhappy and dissatisfied.  I have also seen what law schools have done and it’s a disservice to their students and the public.  There may be a piece of that which has to do with generational loyalty but much of my work shows that 70 percent of those at selective law schools did not want to be part of big law.  They never wanted to be there in the first.  They had a whole range of things they wanted to do.  They wanted to help people. Not necessarily help the poor.  They may have wanted to represent small businesses. They didn’t get what the law school promised them; which is good training.  The law schools failed them.  They have no confidence or autonomy. 

6) In your blog you discuss how many law students don’t venture out to be their own boss and earlier you mentioned that only four Harvard grads from 1984-1988 started their own venture.  Why do you think a law school education sometimes diminishes an entrepreneurial spirit?  What could law schools do differently to encourage entrepreneurship in their students?

It’s not necessarily that they drive it out of you; they just don’t teach you anything.  The teachers in law schools don’t have a background of taking risks:  they have probably been employees and have not been in small firms. They are not role models for going out and starting your own business. You leave law school not having the confidence to practice.

You start out as a competent person and then you become a person with very little self confidence.   That’s a critical aspect of my practice, trying to help clients rebuild that self-confidence.  I just had a symbolic case of this, a client who is very capable and competent but with so little self worth that she has to be given much support before making contact with other lawyers. Law schools diminish the self confidence of their students. `

7) How do you rebuild that self-confidence in people?  

First, you have to teach them that they have options.  I ask them to estimate the average size of a law firm.  They usually respond 100 or 20 or 10. The average is 1.8.  A small percentage of lawyers are in large firms.  Sixty six percent of lawyers are in firms of five or less.  With that knowledge you begin to learn more and are impressed with the background and experience of many solos and small firm practitioners. Many competent lawyers got tired of the work and inflexibility in large law firms and are self starters.  I teach them how to find positions. They realize that few jobs are advertised.  So then they ask what am I going to do and I tell them, you are going to start narrowing your options.  What is it you want to do?  Who do you want to represent?  What area of practice?  Once you decide on an area, I send them to FindLaw to explore areas of practice that appeal to them.  Suppose it is immigration or human rights. is a good place to find out who practices in that area in a local community. The client compiles a list of perhaps as many as 100 lawyers and considers which ones could be warm contacts. Clients then draft a resume. I recommend what I refer to as a “Six Bullet Resume” one targeted to those who do what you want to do. You review your background and experience and show your qualifications for the position in that area of practice. One of them might be that you started your own business.  You make contact not asking for a job but asking that lawyer to talk to you, to give you advice and suggestions. You want that lawyer to contact you if he or she hears about an opportunity. This is what networking, promotion and marketing is all about.
This works for students as well.  If a student is interested in environmental law and toxic tort cases, decide where you want to be for the summer and start contacting alums.  You ask those alums for suggestions on who to talk to and you ask them to be a mentor.  Maybe the law school could develop a mentor list, people that want to help students and give suggestions etc.  Maybe they will even refer you to someone needing summer help.  You haven’t done interviewing or looked at a job board; you have just talked to people.  You then get involved in the field and now you have some experience.

8)  Aside from cutting out the third year of law school, which you mention on your blog, what other suggestions do you have for reducing the cost of a legal education? 

On twitter today someone from The Posse List was talking about how to manage your law school debt.  I responded suggesting eliminating the third year. The response to that was the concern was those who had graduated. The Deeply Unsatisfactory Nature of Legal Education Today published by the Mass School of Law describes well the process by which law schools became much too expensive.  There are many reasons why costs have skyrocketed.and ways in which they can be reduced.

One of the major reasons is that the faculty has defaulted on many of the tasks it takes to run the law school. At my ideal school the faculty is going to do the admission work.  They are going to advise students and help them find positions.  We would end up reducing staff significantly.  We would need someone with a psychological background and someone to do the supplemental work on careers and admission but we would end up having a very lean staff. 

We would also not have any on-campus interviewing.  We would have a committee of faculty and all faculty would be assigned students from the day they register. That faculty member would responsible for guiding that student from day one on career issues.  I would eliminate on-campus interviews because very few firms hire that far in advance, only the largest firms.  We are going to post and publish all evaluations by students about their work experiences at different jobs.  We will have courses on how to practice, a five year plan and a solo practitioner class.

We are also going to urge the legislature to enact a law that would eliminate the need to take bar exams. Upon graduation from our school you will automatically be admitted to the bar.

9) Do you think adjuncts are willing to do that hands on work?

I don’t know that we would have adjuncts. Our faculty would work long hours but their time would be devoted to teaching and working with students. 

10) What does their resume look like to you? 

Varied.  For the first few years some will have graduated from selective law schools and practiced in BigLaw for 3 years and then practiced for 3-4 years in a small firm and perhaps already teaching as an adjunct. Others will come directly from small firms or solo practice. After the school has been in operation for a few years, the faculty will primarily be recruited from those who attended our law school and went directly into solo or mid-size firms.

11) The top 10 percent of the class is highly recruited; what about the other 90 percent?  What advice do you have for the always ignored 90 percent of the class?

Keep in mind that the US News & World Report Ranking is defective; i.e., there is no criteria evaluating how well the school prepares students to practice law. The reality is that there is little difference in law schools. Also keep in mind the ABF After the JD study that indicated the dissatisfaction of associates in BigLaw. 

So my advice is for 100% of the students. The first day of law school ignore the law school’s advice, begin to plan your career and start working with someone who does what you think you may want to do.  Recognize you are going to learn very little at school. Do not expect to learn to practice law at the school, just make sure you pass. As you go from position to position during the three years, research, investigate, network and choose an area of practice. Try to keep your debt down. You don’t want debt to divert you to an unwanted path. Ignore on campus interviews. It’s a funnel to where you might not want to be. Again, this advice is also applicable to the top 10%, because they are not really that fortunate, even though they might think they are.

12) Your second summer in law school is often an opportunity to score a job.  Given today's legal job market, what opportunities do you think second year law students should pursue?  Once they land that job, what advice would you give them to ensure a successful summer? 

At my school faculty would give you advice about what you need to learn and what you will be doing all three years.  You would want to figure out what skills you need to develop and seek positions where you can do that. And you will want to learn more about your preferred area of practice and make contacts with other practitioners. You are marketing and promoting yourself just by being active and involved in that office. You will learn something and grow. All of this is critical to your ultimate goal, finding a position in the law that is consistent with your professional goals and your personal values.

A special thank you to Ron Fox for doing this interview. 

As always I love to hear from you at and For notifcations of new posts and ongoing discussions, follow me on Twitter.


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