There’s a trope in the kind of low brow movies I tend to watch – a character looks at a friend that he thinks has arrived just in the nick of time to save him, and then realizes that his ‘friend’ brings destruction, not salvation.
I think of that kind of scene when law schools or organizations like NALP talk up JD Advantage jobs as a reason to go to law school, with the apparent hope that filling seats with students headed to JD Advantage jobs will help schools survive. They seem to think that JD Advantage jobs are a friend to traditional law programs.
I tend to think that attending law school to get a JD Advantage job is a poor idea, for reasons others have expressed well. My point here is different – if JD Advantage jobs really are on the rise as the legal services field broadens beyond just law practice, they create an opportunity for disruption of legal education that could create huge new problems for law schools.
JD Advantage jobs can be very good jobs and lead to very good careers. Some legal training helps in these jobs – hence, the moniker, JD Advantage. It’s more than a little vague what the concept includes, but certainly jobs such as compliance fit within.
Here’s the problem: law school provides poor training for these jobs. JD Advantage jobs involve skills and methodologies beyond law – say, statistical tracking of compliance activities or knowledge of how to motivate corporate employees to follow policies – none of which are taught in law school.
Even with regard to the law part of these jobs, the traditional JD training is a mismatch. Law school involves too much common law, at far too great cost, while normally providing far too little education in the complex regulatory fields – say, health care law or employment law – often at the core of these fields.
JD degrees may once have been the best available option but we live in an era of entrepreneurial educators. Both at for profit and nonprofit schools administrators look for needs to be filled and design programs for the gap. Law schools have a monopoly on qualifying students for the bar, but not on teaching law, and certainly not on preparing students for non-lawyer careers.
Today programs for JD Advantage careers are starting to appear, some online, some in other parts of the university. Look for these programs to move offline and into the kind of settings where prestige and networking opportunities are part of the value of the degree. Many of these alternate careers are approaching professional status on their own. History teaches us that occupations that wish to elevate themselves to professions seek educational credentials tailored to the field, and make those credentials a de facto or de jure requirement for employment in the field, in preference to whatever credentials previously sufficed. As that process plays out these new fields will have their own top ranked programs tailored to what they do.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Assume two things happen, both of which are, I think, very likely. First, assume most law schools (trapped by the "think like a lawyer" ideology) offer only JD programs or “use empty seats” subsets of the JD program to people interested in JD Advantage careers, allowing schools with bespoke programs with the full range of methodologies to seize the field. Second, assume that some easing of the accreditation rules for JD programs takes place, allowing schools to offer more diverse offerings than are presently available.
In that setting, the table is set for disruptive innovation. Holding some of the assets necessary to JD programs and with a worldview not beholden to Langdell, and with a regulatory environment open for freshly designed programs, the JD Advantage programs are poised to move up market into JD offerings.
It’s a classic story of disruptive innovation – innovators seize a market not core to the legacy providers, offering solutions that are cheaper and/or better tailored to the needs of those customers. Over time, they are able to improve their offerings, and compete on the home turf of the legacy providers.
We know that for decades there has been a steady drumbeat that law schools don’t actually prepare lawyers all that well for practice. We hear that from students, from law firms, and from clients of law firms. We also know that there’s been an equally steady drumbeat that despite that, most law schools have not fundamentally changed. They continue to offer to students a program unfitted to the task.
Imagine that happening in any other industry. What we have here is a market opportunity for someone able to come in and offer a different product. It’s going to make the entry of Japanese and German car makers into the US market in the 1960s and 1970s look uneventful.
JD Advantage jobs are, I think, the wedge. They have grown rapidly in number, and they will continue to grow. The institutions that arise to serve those markets, assuming law schools don’t come in with tailor made offerings, can build on the expertise they develop in other legal services fields, and provide offerings tailored to the services provided by the modern practice of law.
At that point, just as the movie character eventually realizes that his friend is not really his friend, law schools will see the rise of JD Advantage jobs for the threat it is.