The New Normal in Law Schools: Rethinking Leadership to Face Today’s Market Challenges

The EvoLLLution | The New Normal in Law Schools: Rethinking Leadership to Face Today’s Market Challenges
The legal education space is experiencing challenging market conditions and changing demand, seeking out leaders with vision for change and growth.

There’s a new normal in legal education that demands a new standard with regard to law school deans. This doesn’t mean a traditional style of dean can’t survive and thrive in today’s environment, but new skills, and a new mindset, are in order.

What is the new normal in law schools? With a dwindling number of J.D. applicants, there is a dire need to rethink schools’ strategies. In the field there is a call for more interdisciplinary, practice-ready lawyers, and thus schools are being pressured to create non-J.D. programs that will, for example, meet business practicalities in heavily regulated industries like banking, finance and healthcare. After all, these industries require experts in compliance, privacy and governance but not always at the J.D. level.

There is an urgency within law schools (and in higher education in general) to cater to a broadening demographic of potential students. This aligns with a need to bring in alternative sources of revenues, often requiring creative partnerships with other graduate programs (from business to medicine to journalism) and even other colleges and universities.

Deans, therefore, have to get this new normal, to embrace the changing landscape. “Old school” deans with primarily academic backgrounds must welcome the opportunity to reinvent their careers, experiment with new methods, and make new friends. Obviously, there is an open door for a new type of law leader as well, one whose roots are more in practice (often corporate law) and not necessarily in academia.

Competencies Considered

Let’s look at some of the responsibilities that law deans today must take on—or rather the competencies that they must exhibit. These include the ability to:

  • manage change effectively
  • work collaboratively with board members and leaders in central administration
  • help break down walls and siloed thinking
  • raise funds, attract donors and engage alumni
  • connect with the practicing legal community to better understand their needs and expectations
  • keep faculty engaged and inspired
  • articulate a vision and help forge a strategic plan to implement the vision
  • integrate technology in legal education and the legal profession
  • understand ABA and AALS regulations
  • instill in graduates improved business skills and a solid understanding of how businesses operate

Where are such individuals? They are certainly hard to find, but the dearth of obvious, dean-ready candidates under this new normal is one reason why schools are taking the recruiting of new leaders much more seriously than in the past.

Recruiting Reimagined

When seeking out new deans, law schools have traditionally looked within—say, for a long-time professor to assume the mantle. From a pure leadership pipeline standpoint, this is problematic. Law schools tend to have flat organizational structures, meaning there are limited opportunities for faculty to develop administrative and managerial skills. Leadership opportunities are typically limited to associate dean roles or center directors.

Many institutions are trying to overcome this challenge. They encourage deans and would-be deans to take advantage of opportunities to gain leadership experience by, for example, participating in university-wide committees geared towards resource sharing and program development. They are creating associate dean roles that oversee the investigation of experiential learning, innovation, new uses of technology and other proactive initiatives.

In more and more instances, however, law schools are seeking out non-traditional candidates, which is usually code for individuals with law firm, corporate or judiciary backgrounds. This type of candidate can work for a variety of reasons—for example, law firms also have flat organization structures and tend to operate through consensus building—as long as the outsider has some link to the academic world. That could be as an adjunct faculty, member of a college or university board, or through an affiliation with legal education committees through state and/or national bar associations.

There is a sense that non-traditional candidates bring a much-needed fresh perspective to legal education. These individuals often have a natural ability to link and connect with the practicing legal community and are better equipped with managerial skills when it comes to budget oversight and organizational development. They also understand how law firms operate and the impact of modern technology on delivery of legal services (including outsourcing and unbundling of services), and place a strong focus on developing external relationships including potential employment opportunities for students. Quite simply, they bring more business savvy and acumen to legal education.

Are there risks in recruiting non-traditional candidates to law schools? Certainly, with the most significant being a lack of scholarship among candidates and inability to obtain tenure. And for all their brilliance, many external candidates struggle to prove themselves in an academic environment and gain the trust of faculty and employees.

Nevertheless, in the work that we do in recruiting law school deans, every client and search committee today expects a healthy number of non-traditional candidates on the slate of potential deans. In many cases, these non-traditional candidates are actually being selected and succeeding. Search processes have gotten much more sophisticated, leveraging behavioral and leadership assessment methodologies, for instance, to the point that we as recruiters and the search committees we work with have a pretty good sense of which candidates from the outside have the ability to fit in within a law school and thrive on an academic campus. There isn’t the risk with outside candidates that there has been in the past, and the rewards can be great.

Change has to happen in legal education, and it is happening—starting at the top.

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