Daniel Rodriguez Discusses Innovation Lab, Law Firm Hiring Trends and Non-Attorney Ownership
Interview with Daniel Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law
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“…most of us in legal education, and for that matter in the legal profession, believe the changes are structural, not cyclical, which is to say that the glory days, as it were, of big law hiring of many, many, very large number of summer associates and full time associates are on the wane and may never come back.”
“[the Innovation Lab] is a multi- broad university venture that involved… a few law students, a few students from the Kellogg School of Management, a few students from the medical school, and a few students from the engineering school.”
“[Regarding Non-Attorney Ownership of Law Firms] Well, for me, the bottom line is it’s a question of when rather than [ if ].”
“…why wouldn’t we want to experiment. What do we think that is so great about the [law firm] status quo that makes us think let’s not even mess with the current model because the current model is the greatest of all possible worlds?”
“…we are training, educating, the next generation of lawyers so that as we in the professoriate encourage our young students and would-be lawyers to think about destabilizing the profession, disrupting the profession, thinking more imaginatively, learning law and business skills, those young lawyers will go into the profession.”
“I do fully believe that as a law professor and as an American citizen that it’s incumbent upon me to speak about issues of the day, about views about not only legal subjects, but policy subjects that are important to me.”
Links referred to in this episode:
Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy by Gillian Hadfield
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To Download the Transcript of this Audio, click here. (Look in the top right corner and click on the three dots to download.)
Hi listeners, this is Chris Batz, your host of the Law Firm Leadership podcast. As a reminder the transcript of this audio will be available to read or download at LionGroupRecruiting.com/podcast. If you haven’t done so, please leave a review on iTunes.
Finally, in the show notes of your device I’ve provided links to the subjects mentioned in this episode and a link to the transcribed audio.
As many of you know, we interview corporate defense, law firm leaders, partners, general counsel and legal consultants, and, today, law school deans. You’re listening to episode number twelve of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Chris: Welcome to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m your host, Chris Batz with The Lion Group.
Today I had the pleasure of speaking with Dan Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. Dan Rodriguez was appointed Dean and Harold Washington professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in January 2012. A nationally prominent law teacher and scholar, Rodriguez’s principle academic work is in the areas of administrative law, local government law, and constitutional law.
Additionally, Dan, you served in various professional leadership roles. He is the past president of the Association of American Law Schools, AALS. He’s currently a council member of the American Law Institute and on the board of directors of the American Bar Foundation. You were a member of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which is now called the ABA Center of Innovation.
Prior to joining Northwestern Law, you served as chair professor at the University of Austin, Texas Law School, as a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, as Dean and Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at The University of San Diego School of Law, and as a professor of law at the University of California Berkley Boalt Hall School of Law.
Dan you received your law degree from Harvard in ’87. You graduated undergrad from California State University of Long Beach. You were a recipient of the school’s distinguished alumni award. After graduating from law school, you clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Welcome Dan to the Law Firm Leadership podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show.
Dan: Thank you. It’s a pleasure, Chris. All of that’s true.
Chris: Dan it was a pleasure to connect with you over LinkedIn and when I saw that that happened, I’m like, I’ve got to reach out and ask for an interview. I’m just very intrigued with what’s going on in the legal industry world as it is to education. And I know since the recession there’s been dramatic changes to the business of legal education. And I’d like to just jump straight in and start talking about law school trends. Can you give us kind of a backdrop to that and what’s happening?
Law School and Enrollment Trends
Dan: Absolutely. Well, you put your finger on it. I mean, in the last seven, eight, nine years, certainly overlapping with the legal recession, but maybe we can talk about this, maybe not exactly because of the legal recession, there’s been some very significant challenges to put it mildly in American legal education. All of the schools that I’ve been fortunate to be part of and the couple hundred other American law schools have faced the challenges of a quite significant decline in the number of applicants to our law school, somewhere in the magnitude of if you aggregate it close to 40% of decline and as a result smaller classes in law school over all.
At the other end of the pipeline, as it were, a significant challenges in employment for graduates of our nation’s law schools, so it’s been a double whammy, harder to recruit students to American law schools and harder to help place those students in legal positions. There’s other challenges as well, but those have been the most profound and have impacted what we do in our nation’s law schools.
Chris: Dan, if you’re telling me that a law school has a 40% drop in enrollment, I mean, what happens to all that money? I mean, I’m sure you guys budget for that. How does that affect you for planning purposes and trying to pay your bills?
Dan: Well, let me first begin by saying what I just quoted in terms of a statistic is an aggregate statistic, so different schools have suffered, as it were, more than others. I don’t crow in any way in saying this, but my law school, Northwestern Law School, has not suffered nearly that kind of decline.
But to come back to your overall point about law schools, no doubt about it, it has impacted, the decline in law school applications, has impacted in profound ways the economics of legal education. For some law schools, many law schools, they have confronted that challenge by, quite frankly, admitting students to their law school who they wouldn’t have admitted before the recession and before this decline. And that’s not – I’m not telling you anything that you can’t read about and hear about in a variety of different fora. So I mean lower LSAT scores, lower undergraduate records and the like.
At the same time, or perhaps different law schools, they confronted those challenges by decreasing costs in a very significant way. That’s generally not meant lopping off faculty members or the like, but, you know, slowing down faculty hiring and just being much more conservative, as you would find in any business sector. I mean, law schools being a business like any others. So the long and the short of it is, different law schools have encountered, have confronted these challenges in different ways, but all law schools have had to face the fundamental reality that not as many students are applying to our law schools and as a consequence, we need to be nimble and creative in our approach to how we operate our schools.
Law School Students and Employer Hiring Trends
Chris: Let’s talk about the employers who are hiring and you and I have both seen just dramatic decreases in associate hires, has that changed, or have they picked that back up again, or are they just not hiring as many? Are other new employers hiring these associates? What’s going on there?
Dan: As you know, there are many different facets to our profession with regard to the hiring of young lawyers. At our law school, to take an example of this at Northwestern Law School, most of our graduates are going into so-called big law, right, so big law firms which have traditionally hired any number of young associates on a fairly stable pattern over many, many years. Now, it’s no secret that those firms are hiring by and large fewer associates than before. Yes, it ebbs and flows to some degree, but I think most of us in legal education, and for that matter in the legal profession, believe the changes are structural, not cyclical, which is to say that the glory days, as it were, of big law hiring of many, many, very large number of summer associates and full time associates are on the wane and may never come back. Never say never, but aren’t coming back anytime soon.
So the arithmetic of law firm hiring is that they are hiring fewer associates. Again, as a matter of arithmetic, if law schools, like ours and others, are producing the same number of graduates and law firms are hiring a smaller number of associates, then to your question, we need to be more adaptable, law schools need to be more adaptable, in terms of providing career opportunities, urging our students toward career opportunities in other diverse parts of the profession. That’s going on. And I think the glass is half full and half empty. It’s empty or more than half empty in the sense that there are fewer jobs available, no doubt about it. It’s half full or more than half full because I think that, what was it, Bill Clinton who said “Never let a good crisis go to waste” is law schools are, and young lawyers, law students, are looking at more broadly at different kinds of careers in different places in positions that will leverage their skills to get great experience, so maybe on the whole it’s creating a more adaptable, resilient group of students in the market place.
LSAT vs GRE Exams
Chris: That’s excellent. I want to get back to that adaptability as it relates to technology, but let’s first touch on the trend that’s happening in, you mentioned earlier, the LSAT versus GRE. What’s happening right now?
Dan: So one of the reasons we know that fewer students are applying are to law school, I mean, we know it because fewer students are applying to law school, but one of the trendlines that we look at fairly closely every few months is the number of students who are taking the LSAT, right? So by and large, what the approach had been and has been among law schools is you look at the students who are taking the Law School Admissions Test, which is sort of the gatekeeping test to go to law school, you see whether it’s up or whether it’s down, it’s typically been down over many years, and by and large you throw up your hands and say, “Oh, it’s too bad. Fewer students are taking the LSAT. Bummer. I guess that means there will be fewer students applying to law school.”
Well, in the last little while, by which I mean really in the last year or so, a number of law schools, including ours, including Northwestern, but a number of law schools have pivoted to some extent and have announced, in our case, publically announced, that we will be considering applicants to law school who have taken not necessarily the LSAT, but have taken another test, the Graduate Record Exam, as a test to consider applying to law school.
I’ll just, to make a long story short, the reason we’ve done it – and this has also, by the way, been true of Harvard Law School, Georgetown Law School, University of Arizona Law School, I think a number of other schools are considering this – it’s to widen the pipeline. It’s to take – to consider students who might be ambivalent about going to law school, who might have thought about going to graduate school let’s say in the sciences, hard sciences, who would see the LSAT as a barrier to entry to some degree. And instead of basically saying, “Well, too bad. You didn’t take the LSAT, so you’re not law school bound,” is look at students who have taken a more ubiquitous test, like the GRE and say “Would you consider law school?” It’s not a panacea. It’s not going to change the whole scheme of law school applicants, but it maybe, just maybe, widen access to somewhat more non-traditional students who might think of law school as an important pathway to education to the profession.
Chris: Yeah, it would be very interesting to see the numbers as those start rolling out and how that affects your enrollment.
Chris: Yeah, I want to keep hitting on the legal tech side or legal education, but I have another question I want to ask. Back in 2014, which seemed to be kind of the peak of the pain for law schools, I think that’s correct.
Chris: It seemed that employers were hiring students differently. Do you say that? The on campus visits versus other methods of hiring law grads or law students?
Dan: Well, we do. That’s exactly right. And I think you’re right to notice that in the last couple, three years. I’ll mention one law firm, if I may just mention a name of a firm- Quinn Emanuel, very prominent firm, well known I’m sure to your listeners.
Dan: Exactly. They decided, I don’t know exactly when it was, but recently, look, we’re not going to come on campus and do the traditional on campus interviews. We’re going to do somewhat different. We’re going to hire students right out of law school, but maybe we’ll do it through receptions or take resumes and review their resumes, just a somewhat non-traditional way of reaching out to law students. I think that we saw a handful of other firms that were following in that pathway.
So it’s not for me as a dean of a law school to cast judgment on how a law firm ought to evaluate second year students and third year students. That is a judgment that the law firm has to make for itself. But to your question, yes, we are, in the law school side of things, where of course we have our students who are very anxious to provide access and opportunity to law firms, to be able flexible, adaptive, creative in putting our students’ best foot forward so that firms will be able to evaluate and examine them.
If I had a crystal ball, which I do not, but if I had a crystal ball I would say that in the years to come, I think that many law firms will look at different ways of vetting law students and young lawyers for employment. I’m not here to say that that’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but, again, I think we’re going to need to be in law schools adaptive to what law firms are doing or feel they need to do to seriously evaluate and examine young potential lawyers.
Chris: In maybe one area that they have done it or started to do or it has been definitely talked about is personality tests. Are you seeing that with your students from employers?
Dan: You know, so here’s interesting. So I’m not here to give an infomercial from my law school, but I will say this. We and other law schools, other law schools have done a lot more than let’s say when I was in law school back in the stone ages about looking at the whole person. For example, Northwestern and a number of other schools, I think we were pioneers in this regard, generally admit students who have work experience before they come to law school, maybe that’s a year, maybe that’s two years, maybe that’s three years, that’s a big difference. So we’re already bringing in students to our – and I’ll get to your question about personality testing – but we’re bringing in students who have some broader experience than their academic record.
We interview our students and many other schools increasingly are doing that as well, applicants. So we’re actually, it’s not the same as personality testing, but we’re actually looking at a much more scientific way of examining. It’s not just whatever pops into our head. We’re actually looking at the kind of the state of the art of you interview students. So all of that is developing you might say, more of a scientific approach to evaluating student ability and competency.
Now to get to the point about law firms, I think it’s not a coincidence that more and more firms, and employers, businesses and the other are looking at greater techniques, more sophisticated techniques of evaluating talent than was the case in the years past. It’s not my expertise. I don’t, you know, I’m not a true expert certainly in the science of this, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad sign to the extent that you can develop techniques of greater evaluation, whether it’s personality testing or the like that maybe we’ll get somewhere, maybe they’ll be a way of really developing a much more skillful way of evaluating law student talent.
Law School Education and Legal Tech Trends
Chris: Fascinating. And I’ve been, I definitely believe that’s going to evolve. Let’s go ahead and jump into what I’ve been curious and just itching to talk about, legal tech. This just seems to be a burgeoning kind of overtaking subject of the entire legal industry. How is this affecting education right now?
Dan: It affected it in all sorts of ways. One of our just enormous kind of strategic objectives at my law school, which I certainly believe is being echoed at a number of law schools around the country, is the belief that the lawyer of the present and certainly of the future has to be adept at working at the intersection of law, business and technology. The days when you have these silos where there was the business person who was working with their head down until they got in the C-suite and was working in the business element of the issues and the technology person who was working on technology, maybe in engineering or in high tech, whatever, and then you had your lawyer, like in the movies. They would be brought in at the 11th hour to tell to the manager, you know, you can’t do this. The so-called Abominable No-Man, right? Providing a kind of cold water on the entrepreneurs’ ideas.
That’s anachronistic. And we want our young lawyers to be expert in business and we want our lawyers to be much more skilled in technology. Now that’s not a new insight, but I think that one thing that is new is that law schools are starting to get into that business. We’re not just basically handing off young lawyers to law firms to say if you want them to be more teched up with more sophisticated technology, you teach them. If you want them to be more sophisticated in business, you teach them. Law firms are expecting, and I think they have every right, to expect law schools to take the laboring oar at educating students who can work in business and in technology.
And I’m not going to sit here and say that we are, you know, we’re necessarily completely Johnny-on-the-spot on that. That we have completely accomplished the objective of providing education in those areas, but we’re working on it. We are working on it. We are working on – we expect our students at our law school and so many other law schools I think around the country to be exposed to work in law and technology. I want our students – we expect our students to be adept at some basic quantitative skills, to understand, again, how to know their way around a spreadsheet, but not only that, but be familiar with big data. I would love our students to have some exposure to legal analytics. We have a class in coding in the curriculum. I’d like to see more of our students exposed to that.
So, you know, this is – I know I’m preaching to the choir on this. Whether you’re talking about litigators, you’re talking about transactional lawyers, you’re talking about general counsels, they need to have exposure to legal tech, law tech and technology generally, not just how technology affects the practice of law, but how lawyers adapt to technology. And we can definitely do that in law school. We ought to do that in law school. And I’ll double down on that, I think that should be a requisite. We should expect our students. It shouldn’t just be boutique work. We should expect all of our law students to have that experience while they’re in their precious three years in law school.
Chris: I think it’s absolutely essential and it’s splendid to hear this. I have to just share a little story. I came across a group in an unnamed city in the United States. They’re transactional lawyers. They actually work in the banking industry, so I’ll go that far to say. And they were banking transactional lawyers, yet they developed a software, so they worked with a software developer that was actually part of their law firm team. And when an M&A project came along, this firm was picked or this group was picked when a banking transaction went through to do it, as they called it, through like a TurboTax kind of method. And it was extremely profitable and it also was uniquely desired by the client because it just completely reduced hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours by what they created to kind of automate the process. And so they basically changed the delivery, the method, and even the revenue method of doing this kind of transaction, which was a huge M&A transaction for banks to combine and/or sell too. It’s fascinating. And I’ll just kind of close with this part.
Chris: I was talking to other firms about this and so many law firms had the hardest time wrapping this around their head. They said, “Well, they’re lawyers. And they’re supposed to practice law, right?” I’m like, “Yeah, but they created a tool,” and I don’t need to repeat it, but I’m still amazed at how many firms don’t get the value of automation and how tech applies to the industry.
Dan: Well, that’s, I think that’s exactly right. When I listen to that story, at the core of that, what I find that has some salience with lawyers, even shall we say, older lawyers, who are much, much, sort of technology is not their world or their wheelhouse, what sometimes resonates with them, and I think your story is an illustration of that, is look, what are lawyers there to do. Provide value to clients, right?
Dan: And that has an efficiency element to it, right? It has an expertise element to it. All of those things are true. If you can deploy technology, as a young lawyer in particular, to do a legal task more efficiently, so if you are adept let’s say at e-discovery or online dispute resolution or what have you, you have the ability to deploy technology for a more efficient way, the client doesn’t really need to look under the hood, but just knows that you are providing value at a much more efficient way. That’s, of course, the great goal of these various apps, right? If you can develop an application that provides that skill, that’s great. If I can just make this point.
Dan: It’s not really tangential, but I’ll just make it anyway. One of the things that I found in the legal tech world, and I know many of your listeners are probably involved in legal tech in some way on the technology side, so they’re developing, develop this enormous ecosystem of law tech. The one thing that I think that’s been missing as I go to these fairs and talk to legal tech folks or whatever, is the expertise of the lawyers in that. A surprising number of legal tech companies, some of which have come and gone, are not, don’t develop or deploy legal expertise. They think well, law is just another venue for us to take our app and develop it and apply it. Why is a law firm any different than a corporation or different than any other setting?
I think that’s naïve. I think the key, the key, in the coming years will be the marriage between folks who have enormous skills on the technology side and the business side, and the entrepreneurial side, and the lawyers, that is folks with legal education, who have that kind of way of thinking, that can bring those two elements together.
Chris: I absolutely agree with you and that’s what that group was displaying to me. And they were at a large firm and when I realized what they were doing and I even was talking to other firms about the idea of this and how this would work, it just seems wildly disruptive to eliminate hundreds if not thousands of attorney hours that can be reduced to just two individuals or small team, and yet be wildly profitable.
But, you know, one of the other hang-ups I’ll say is I don’t know if firms will ever get over this. They will eventually have to. And one of the subjects we’ll talk about today will probably be a part of that is firms are so caught up on the legal activity of a lawyer billing and collecting that it’s all about who gets the credit and how can a solution like this help everyone or help that one person versus the whole.
Legal Entrepreneurship and the Innovation Lab
Chris: And there’s just, there needs to be a lot of change coming. If I may, tell me about the innovation lab at the law school right now.
Dan: Sure. So we developed, really grown out of our entrepreneurship programs at the law school, an innovation lab. And what it basically is is a vehicle by which we can bring together students in our various programs, and I want to, in a moment I’ll mention what those programs are, but in our various programs to develop skills that will be extraordinarily important wherever they go because these are entrepreneurial skills. And I want to be clear in saying it’s not necessarily that these graduates will go out and be entrepreneurs, you know, go to Silicon Valley and create the next Google, although God bless them if they do. But wherever they go into in kind of the legal ecosystem, they will have developed the skills of working in teams, that’s a key part of it, working in teams with one another to develop an approach to solving a particular problem. Maybe the problem is access to justice, maybe the problem is in outreach to small businesses, whatever.
So the phrase de jour these days is design thinking, but I think it’s a key point, which is developing an approach to actually solving particular problems. It’s an iterative process, so they’re problem solving, they are mobilizing legal skills to do that, they are looking at a market, so there’s certain business skills and economic skills that go into that, they are maybe using legal techniques to penetrate into that market, like, for example, patents or intellectual property, all as a process of working together to innovate. I keep saying together in teams because that’s a big part of it.
Now I said in our various programs, and this is a point I really want to emphasize, we have at our law school, and, again, I think you’ve seen this in other law schools as well, we have, of course, the students who are training to become lawyers. These are the students in our JD program. We also have LLM students in our graduate program. These are foreign lawyers from around the world, who bring their own sets of skills and perspectives from there.
We also have a very, very unique program, if I can smuggle this point in, it’s a Master of Science and Law program for STEM professionals. These are folks with strong science backgrounds, technology backgrounds, engineering backgrounds, who are coming to the law school on a one-year program, not to become lawyers, but to have legal education that enables them to prosper in their own careers. They, this, back to the Innovation lab, this is the incubator, where all the students from these various programs working in teams together develop inventions, as it were, to enable them to really prosper.
And that is the future to me. I mean, if I can get on the soapbox. The future is a future where lawyers are working with non-lawyers, folks with other kind of skills, and folks from other countries, and folks with other backgrounds, who speak different languages and I mean that in both a literal and a figurative sense, to develop kinds of skills. We hear that so often from employers. We want young lawyers to hit the ground running and that means the ability to adapt to a marketplace in which multi-disciplinary skills, including skills that involve technology and business, the ability to work in teams, so called soft skills, which is often used as a pejorative, but that means leadership skills and all of that.
Chris: That’s essential.
Dan: All come together. And our Innovation lab is really kind of the manifestation of that approach.
Chris: It’s so fascinating. So have you taken or has anything come out of that lab that has gone to market?
Dan: Let me take a step back. Before we did the Innovation lab, which we just started this last year, we had a program at my university, at Northwestern University, called NUvention, if you get the cleverness of that, that was kind of a multi- broad university venture that involved basically – it was a little bit like Noah’s ark. Right? We had a few law students, a few students from the Kellogg School of Management, a few students from the medical school, and a few students from the engineering school. And that’s been going on for a number of years and it really is kind of the model or the template for the Innovation lab.
Out of that program, which has existed now for, I don’t know, seven or eight years, the answer to your question is yes. There have been some businesses that have emerged from that program that have really, you know, capital raised, business plan, incorporated, that have really gone forward. We certainly hope, it’s too soon to tell, but we hope that out of the innovation lab, the initiative that you asked about that’s in the law school, that we will see some actual initiatives that will come to fruition. I mean, why the heck not. We’re obviously looking at this as an educational endeavor, but to the extent that it has business salience, that would be terrific.
Futurist Thinking: Status Quo vs. Non-Attorney Ownership of Law Firms
Chris: Yes, it would and what better place to have it than within a law school. I love it. I’m just so absolutely intrigued because I feel like there’s so much disruption that is yet to come but is still coming. And it kind of is a good segue into the next question I want to just address, which is just ABA Resolution 105, which is this prohibition against or the discussion, the framework regulation of non-lawyers and ownership interest in law firms. And I just have to mention because we talked earlier about this, I occasionally read Adam Smith, Esquire or Bruce MacEwen’s and his blog and his team, and this month he’s got a survey up. Question of the month, is the prohibition against non-lawyer having an ownership interest in the law firm still a good idea. And the results so far, there’s 96 votes, and 70% of those votes say it’s not a good idea, non-lawyers should invest or should be able to have ownership in law firms and only 20% are saying, no we need to keep it the way it is. What’s your thoughts? I’m fascinated.
Dan: Well, for me, the bottom line is it’s a question of when rather than whether. I enthusiastically endorse what used to be the radical view, but the poll that you just quoted suggest that maybe it’s not nearly so radical, that we should move, the United States and the legal profession in the United States should move in the direction that you’re already seeing in the UK, in Australia, perhaps pretty soon in Canada and other places, toward what’s often called alternative business structures, but as you identified, it is basically non-lawyer ownership in law firms. I really do believe that.
Now, having said that, as a lawyer and as a certainly someone who is committed to integrity in the legal profession and the ethics, as we all are, there are some tricky issues that are entailed and involved. And I don’t minimize them.
I give credence to so many lawyers in the United States who say we have to adapt our model around the fundamental commitment to law as a profession and the issues that are unique to lawyers and legal ethics. But I think that should not and ought not to be a shield or a bulwark against a movement toward a model of legal practice and law firm practice that acknowledges that law firms are a business and that the engagement by folks outside of law firms in the corporate sector and in the business sector and their money and their involvement in law firms is absolute vital and essential.
I mean, the way I look at it is what’s the status quo. If we maintain the current infrastructure of law firms and the kind of the, I keep coming back to the work silos, this silo mentality, which is law firms are different, thinking like a lawyer is different. It’s an unusual island unto itself. Modern economy is saying that that’s not working out.
Chris: Yeah, it’s like saying Blockbuster and Kodak is going to be here forever.
Dan: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, good luck with that. I mean, so being a futurist, whatever that means, comes also with its risk. Is that, do you want to chase the next shiny object? And the answer is no. You have to be wary against trends and against things that are passing fancies, but this is not one of them. A non-lawyer financial engagement with law firms has been going on at around the world, in many parts of the world for a number of years. What do we know? What do we know in the United States in the regulations profession that is so profoundly magical that means that our lawyers in our law firms in the US should be resistant against those trends? I know that’s a rhetorical question, but to me that points clearly in the direction of reform.
I’ll just, just to put a punctuation mark on it, the resolution that you referred to, to be clear, if the ABA changed its regulatory regime with respect to that, it doesn’t require firms take non-lawyer ownership, right? All it does is provide the discretion, the prerogative of firms, so let the market decide. If the market decides that that’s bad for the firms, bad for the profession, bad for industry, then it will be full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Chris: You know, when we talk about this subject, I can’t help but think back to an article. It was the main piece in American Lawyer monthly magazine. I think it was 2011 or 2010. And the whole premise was what if a firm went public. And it actually walked you through the IPO process and evaluation process, generally speaking, but it literally had the feeling of, you know, the partner shares now went from X dollars and now has a factor of 10 – 20, whatever it might be because it went public, just the implications of Wall Street getting ahold of the valuation of a law firm is, again, in a whole other conversation that can be pretty wild.
Dan: Yeah. Exactly right. It’s a complex conversation. It’s one, of course, that has a number of dimensions. I’ll simply say, and I don’t mean this at all glibly, is:
why wouldn’t we want to experiment. What do we think that is so great about the status quo that makes us think let’s not even mess with the current model because the current model is the greatest of all possible worlds?
Chris: Yeah, and yet lawyers are the most risk adverse to change in any profession I think I know out there.
Chris: I’m wholeheartedly in agreement with you and I definitely also agree with you when you first opened up. I think it’s definitely a matter of when, not if.
Dan: Right. And you might ask a question, well what do any of us in legal education have to do with this and the answer is probably at this point fairly marginal. Except, I will say this, we are training, educating, the next generation of lawyers so that as we in the professoriate encourage our young students and would-be lawyers to think about destabilizing the profession, disrupting the profession, thinking more imaginatively, learning law and business skills, those young lawyers will go into the profession. They’re going to be the gatekeepers. They’re going to be the ones taking leadership positions in the ABA. They’re going to be the one taking the position in law firms. So no one truly cares about what law deans have to say about this, but they will care about what young lawyers will say about this.
So when I say it’s when rather than whether, I’m not trying to be belligerent. I’m just saying that I think it’s simply a matter of time before we see adaptation.
The Life of a Law School Dean
Chris: Yeah, I agree with you. Let’s talk a little about, just generally about your role at the school. What’s life like for a law school dean or for you being at Pritzker?
Dan: You know, I’m a greatly, I think it’s a great job. And I feel privileged coming to work every single day. And I don’t mean to be Pollyannaish about it. I mean, the challenges that I referred to at the beginning of our conversation are real. It’s a hard era to be in legal education and to lead a law school, but, for me, two things that are just overriding, from an overriding perspective great about the position that I hold is number one, the students are interesting, are enthusiastic, have anxiety about the profession, but are just engaged with the world in various ways. And to come to, you know, to be able to teach young people and to see the next generation of the legal profession is just, is absolutely thrilling, number one.
Number two is I do believe that my law school is in a very good position to really adapt to the changes in the legal profession. And that’s a little bit of an odd thing to say because there’s probably no more of a conservative institution in our profession than the American law school. I walk into work every day and look at kind of seal on the wall that says ‘Northwestern Law School 1876.’ And its history weighs very deeply on us, but at the same time we are making adaptations. We have a faculty that is committed to multi-disciplinary research, that have degrees in other fields and all of that. And so I feel that that’s exciting thing to be part of.
And as a dean, on a more personal level as a dean, I can sort of at the kind of the intersection of the academic world of all the work that’s done in a more kind of ivory tower way, in research and curriculum and all of that, but I’m also engaged in the profession because I’m working with thousands and thousands of alumni of the law school who are working in law firms, who are working in general counsels’ office, who are working in the government. If I can quickly mention an anecdote.
Dan: I had one of the great thrills of my professional life last week, this time last week. I was in Washington DC at the United States Supreme Court, get this, interviewing Justice John Paul Stevens, our alumnus of Northwestern, 97 years old.
Dan: Supreme Court Justice for 35 years, talking about his life. He graduated from our law school in 1947. And talking to Justice Stevens about what he has seen over the course of his entire life. I was pinching myself. I was thinking what a great job I have to be able to talk about such a great, so life’s good in terms of that and my career.
Chris: Yeah, what an honor to talk to someone like that and to see everything he’s seen.
The First Amendment and Being a Responsible Citizen
Chris: Oh my goodness. Bringing up the Supreme Court Justice Stevens, I’d like to just touch on a passion of yours, something that you, you specialize in law, but constitutional law. Let’s jump in about how you feel about being a responsible citizen and the first amendment. How is that reflected in your life?
Dan: Obviously I have colleagues throughout the law school, colleagues of mine, professors. I’ve taught at many law schools. I have 200 dean colleagues around the country. I have a little bit of a more idiosyncratic view and perspective on the role of a dean of a law school, at least as I see it, which is the following. I think that on the one hand, my responsibility as a dean is to be sufficiently balanced and responsible so that I’m speaking, when I speak, I speak and write and all of that not only on behalf of my own views but on behalf of the law school I represent. And I do that I think as responsibly as the president of the Northwestern University would or as a public official would. Absolutely.
On the other hand, I do fully believe that as a law professor and as an American citizen that it’s incumbent upon me, just speaking for me, to speak about issues of the day, about views about not only legal subjects, but policy subjects that are important to me.
Let me not to be too opaque about it. Let me give you an example. When the President of the United States a week and a half ago made the decision to pardon the sheriff in Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio, now I think it’s fair to say that nine out of every ten dean that I’d come up with would say, “Hey, I’m not going to get into that. That’s, I have views about that, but that’s not for me to say.” I didn’t feel that way. And I’m going to be self-righteous about it. I’m not, maybe the nine out of ten deans are right and I’m wrong, but I just feel that when I spoke out on social media strongly against that decision, even understanding that every tag line whenever I say something on social media says Dean Daniel Rodriquez, I felt that that was still within my prerogative as a citizen.
So it’s not so much about the first amendment in the sense that, I mean, of course I have free speech rights. That’s not the point. But I sort of feel like that’s a role that I have and that’s a role that I could play. Indeed I put it a point stronger. I feel like that I wouldn’t feel nearly the joy in the job I have if I couldn’t take positions and articulate those positions in the way I see fit. Just like when you asked me a few minutes ago about alternative business models in law firms. Now that’s not like pardoning Sheriff Arpaio, but that too is a view that I feel like I don’t want to, I’d be dishonest if I said I don’t have a view about that or I feel like I couldn’t say that on behalf of the law school.
Chris: Yeah, and it is a controversial issue. There’s a lot of law partners influential who simply don’t want to see firms owned by other attorneys or other people I should say.
Dan: Oh yeah. Look, I hear from some of them.
Chris: I bet you do.
Dan: You know, whenever I speak on a particular issue, it’s like, “Well, you know, I disagree about that,” and sometimes they say then in harsh terms.
Chris: Yeah, I believe it. Now I did notice and I hope it’s okay to just mention. I notice you spoke to your students about DACA and how that’s really disrupting and can be disruptive for many people. Is that going to be also a matter affecting your school?
Dan: Well, it potentially could be. Our law school like so many other law schools has students who are so-called DACA students, or Dreamers to use the vernacular, and when the President’s announcement was imminent and then after it was made, we heard from those students about real anxiety as you can imagine that they had about their particular status. What I did, and some other deans did this too, I was certainly not alone in this regard, but what I did was even before the President’s announcement is made it crystal clear that our law school and indeed our university, this was a point made by our president of our university, was going to spare no effort to protect students, Dreamer students, from vulnerability.
Now, we’re universities and law schools. We’re not the federal government, so let’s not exaggerate our significance in this regard. But whatever you think of the policy issue, I thought it just absolutely responsible for the law school to express our solidarity with those students in no uncertain terms.
Current Reading and Authors of Choice
Chris: Absolutely necessary and it is tremendous that you do speak out like that. I think it’s courageous. So touching on just more personal subjects as we continue in that, I always like to ask lawyers because most of them usually have to do this anyway, but how are you right now consuming content? What kind of content, where are you getting your sources, any kind of resources you can name for our listeners?
Dan: I’m glad you asked that. As a legal academic, I mean, I’m a dean, but I’m professional legal academic, we can often be inside our own heads, right, which is to say we can look at what other academics have said on various subjects, whether at our law school or outside of our law school, whether it’s law journal articles or books or others. And certainly I do consume that content in that way as is appropriate. But because I feel responsible to help lead a law school that is training and educating students who are going out into the profession, in this dynamic profession that we’ve just been talking about, I make a special point of reaching out to literature and data and analysis from the profession.
So I try to, I’m a sort of a data driven kind of guy, so I like to read reports, analyses, not only from lawyers, but from social scientists and others in that field. I’ll just, I’ll give one shout out. So my friend, Richard Susskind, who’s probably name familiar to you.
Dan: He’s a very prominent legal futurist. If there’s an issue that strikes me as a little more complicated than I’m familiar with, I might pick up the phone and ask Richard, “Hey, what should I read? Point me in that direction so I can learn more.” Now I’m not a scientist. I’m not a, I’m not going to invent the next great app. I’m not, there are limits to my capacity that we all have in terms of absorbing information, but I really try to reach out to get content about the profession and about its intersection with other fields in as proactive way as I can.
And I should also say this, as the leader of the law school, which is to say as the dean of the law school, I encourage my team to also look at content beyond the four corners of what might you call traditional legal information.
Chris: That’s excellent. I’m a, I personally am a huge fan of Susskind. I think he’s definitely a legal prophet, if you may.
Dan: Yup, I agree.
Chris: Tremendous voice. I mean, you mentioned Richard. Do you have any favorite authors that you pick up and read or go to?
Dan: Well you mentioned Bruce and his blog, I guess that’s a fair way to describe it. He’s really terrific.
You know, my good friend, Gillian Hadfield, who is a law professor at USC, who wrote a just terrific book if I can plug it. It’s not my book; it’s her book, but Rules for a Flat World, which is just remarkably interesting. And she’s Canadian by background. She’s an economist too. And it covers some of the subjects we’ve been talking about, about legal technology and about alternative business models, about regulation. So she’s a terrific author.
Bill Henderson has written on law and the legal profession. He has this wonderful blog that’s fairly new that I would also plug called Legal Evolution that confronts and deals with these issues.
Everyone, I mean, Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation of course is hugely important and impactful and I certainly think that’s a great, a great – you know, I also would say this. I like to read a lot about history. I think that reading about American and even non-American history, not limited to law, gives me at least, a good frame for thinking about the much broad, you know, the broader trends and the broader issues that we’re dealing with because, again, we get inside our own heads and say what’s going on now, what happened since the recession, but that’s a blip, right, in a much, much wider experience in history. I mean, these issues in the legal profession that we’re talking about, some of them had been going on in the previous century, the century before that, whatever. So looking at social history, political history, economic history, I find very interesting and important.
Dan: I think. So just to mention, you know, Alfred Chandler, which was an economic historian from Harvard. I don’t think he’s still alive, wrote – oh god, I’m forgetting the name of the book, but your listeners can look it up. Alfred Chandler, a business historian from Harvard wrote some interesting books in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. He’s a good example of what I’m talking about, sort of writing about kind of the intersection between social history and business history.
One of the great books I remember, again, I read in college, Thomas McCraw wrote a book called the Prophets of Regulation, which again, is just a wonderful insight into the development of kind of regulation and business strategy in a particular timeframe.
Chris: It’s fascinating. I appreciate those resources. I know the listeners will appreciate that too. So let me ask you this question with you being a reader in this case and likes more than just simply maybe what you focus on academically. What books should be written that have not been written yet, Dan? Any topics that pop in your mind?
Author a Book on Comparative Legal Education
Dan: That’s a great question. Books, I’ll tell you a book I would love to write and I hope and I aspire to write. I really would, I should say my goal is to write a book about comparative legal education. We, that is to say, we’ve been in the business in the United States of legal education for all these years and we’re, I’ve been focused on it. It’s sort of my world. And many, and we’re doing work of course in many other countries. I come across deans from all other countries in a variety of ways. And I think that I’d really like to explore and hope to explore is kind of the dynamics of how different systems in different countries, particularly nowadays and into the future, think about educating lawyers. So I’ll just say this, we know that the legal profession is an increasingly borderless world, right?
Dan: I don’t mean that it has no borders, but, you know, globalization and the impact of the legal profession, you talk to lawyers, you talk to so many lawyers, that understand kind of the global forces that are so profound. But legal education has been removed from that to a great degree. You have to be – if I decide to go to Canada tomorrow or I decide to go to the UK or Australia, I have no credential, I have no educational background, folks would wave me away as “Well, you went to an American law school. You have nothing really skills to develop.” Why? So I’d like to really dig into how we think about the structure of legal training and the education of lawyers across different countries. I think that’s a book yet to be written. Now, I hope to write that book.
Chris: Well, if you do it in the near future, I’d love to have you on the podcast again and we can talk about the book.
Chris: So let’s talk a little bit about how you like to unwind and maybe in tandem with that is any items left on your bucket list?
Dan: Well, so how I like to unwind, I’m certainly a believer as the saying goes in work/life balance. I aspire to that probably more than I realize that. But my wife and I enjoy traveling. A lot of that is business related, but one of the great advantages of the careers that we have in legal education is there’s wonderful things to do and alums around the world, so we certainly take the opportunity to see different places. And I consider that unwinding by visiting many other parts, not only the country, but of the world.
And more narrowly on the unwinding subject, is we enjoy spending some time in what was our home before we came to Chicago, which was California, northern California in particular, so we try to spend a fair amount of time there. And that gives us an opportunity to play golf and play tennis and enjoy what that has to offer.
You know, here’s what I always, I get asked the question because I don’t even know if the phrase bucket list existed before five years ago, but now we hear it all the time, right? I have a little bit of an idiosyncratic view on that. I don’t have a kind of a bucket list where I say I’ve done these things, but I’m desperate while I’m on the earth to do these more things. I instead think of my bucket list as more opportunities that come available.
You know, I’ve had the opportunity to teach at a number of law schools and thus live in a number of different places. If you had asked me at any given point in time, “Five years from now are you going to move? Are you going to go to a different place? Are you going to take a different job?” whatever, I wouldn’t have known and I wouldn’t have been in a position to say. So I sort of feel like opportunities come available and I’m a little more likely to roll with the punches, than, if I can mix a metaphor, than have a bucket list, where I say I’ve got to check this off the list to do next.
Chris: Yeah, that’s tremendous. It sounds very-
Dan: Probably a little more philosophical than you wanted.
Chris: No, that’s great. No, I think it’s well thought out. Do you have any personal heroes of yours throughout the years of leadership in law school and what you’ve done?
Dan: Sure. In the particular context of my career and I’d say sort of mentors who have helped me, the dean of the Harvard Law School, which was my alma mater, who just stepped down last year, Martha Minow was her name, was a law professor back when I was there at the law school, served for eight just great years at Harvard, just to step down. She was a great hero. And I’ll say this, she was very, I say was, I mean she’s still very active, very engaged even as a very experienced law professor in these issues of kind of law and technology and the new, kind of the new legal world. I admired that and I felt that that was really important.
I never knew him. We didn’t overlap in law school. We missed each other I think by just one year, but our last President, President Barack Obama, this is not a political point as much as it is to your question about heroes, is I think a remarkable example of someone who has leveraged extraordinary personal history, legal education, public service into the highest position in the land. And so, again, I don’t know him personally in any way, but I would certainly regard him, I do regard him as especially heroic in the kind of career.
And I mentioned Justice Stevens before and I just want to put another shout out just because it’s so fresh in my mind. What a remarkable human being, somebody who’s lived in sort of great public service over the course of a great time. I’d say those are pretty good heroes. I would certainly include them.
Chris: And as a last question I have for you, what is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
Dan: Wow. It’s a great question. The kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. You know, so I’ll say this on a totally personal note. My, I was a first generation college student from a family that, a great family, but not a family that had higher education in their experience. And if I could think of the kindest thing or the kindest things that was done for me was when I was in high school as someone who wasn’t necessarily destined to go toward or into higher education, just teachers that I can think of that said to me, when I didn’t ask, “You should think about that. You can accomplish something. You could go to college, you graduate from college. You could really make a life for you with education.”
When I look back on it, that was absolutely transformative. If that hadn’t happened, then I wouldn’t have gone – I mean, who knows what would have happened, but I wouldn’t have gone that pathway. So I would say those were clearly, clearly the folks. And there more than one, but I mean from that time in my life were by far the folks who did me the great, the kindness. And you know, like a lot of people, not to be maudlin about it, I never got a chance to thank them because that’s how it happens. But they were unbelievable transformative in my life.
Chris: Yeah, it’s rich to reflect and to be grateful about, just small gestures or very intentional gestures and that sounds like a real gift. Well, Dan, it’s been an honor and I would say a pleasure and I wanted to thank you for your time today.
Dan: Well, I appreciate that and I want to thank you for your work you do on Law Firm Leadership. You ask about heroes, but in some small ways the folks who are leaders in the profession in so many different ways are heroes to our profession and that you, leaving me wholly to one side, that you profile them and give them a kind of a platform to talk about their own careers and experience is a great service and I want to commend you on that.
Chris: Excellent. Well, that’s extremely kind of you and thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah, I would say let’s do this again. Maybe if you knock out that book I should have you on again.
Dan: Absolutely. That will put some pressure on me. That’s good.
Chris: Good. Excellent.
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