Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Breaking the quality code, Part 1 - review work product, not law school diplomas

Last week, Bruce MacEwan, at the Adam Smith, Esq. blog, joined NAFLP in tackling the question of what constitutes a good attorney – "How High Quality Are Your Lawyers? (How Can You Tell?). He submits that there is “an inability, or at least a failure, of clients to measure quality of legal services. With no real handle on what’s extraordinary work, what’s acceptable work, and what’s unacceptable work, client’s buy the ‘proxy’ of prestige firm, law school pedigree, and yes, high hourly billing rates. . . .” Citing a “core market information failure, which is clients’ consistent and nearly universal inability to assay quality of their lawyers . . .” he challenges BigLaw and Fortune 500 firms to “start thinking creative . . . about what ‘quality’ in legal services really means.”

At least one new company is thinking of some new ways. JD Supra) is an online directory of lawyers with samples of their work product for any client or attorney to view. Aviva Cuyler, a San Francisco-based attorney who founded JD Supra, is cited a recent article as hoping to create “a central hub for information about the law and the people behind it” ("A Revoluation in Online Legal Content", July 7, 2008. http://www.law.com/). I see it as something far more – it is at least one place where potential clients and other lawyers can see and evaluate one’s work.

Mitch Matorin, a solo practitioner in Massachusetts, was cited in the same article as “see[ing] JD Supra as one way to help level the playing field between small and large firms. . . . a tool for potential clients to find qualified solo or small firm attorneys with the experience to handle matters that they otherwise would direct to large firms simply out of familiarity. JD Supra permits them to see examples of his actual work product and make a reasoned hiring decision.” Before you think that this is limited to showing off legal writing skills alone, think again. You can also post transcripts of court hearings and depositions to show off your verbal skills too.

On the flip side, looking at law school diplomas is not creative. Out of curiosity, I did a little research regarding the tiering of law schools. My brief research was so disturbing that I will be returning to the subject in later posts. Here’s the short history. The most widely known ranking of law schools is published by U.S. News & World Report. Their criteria can be found here - http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/best-graduate-schools/2008/03/26/law-methodology.html.

This ranking system has been widely criticized and is not endorsed by the American Bar Association or the Law School Admission Council. The Association of American Law Schools, via its executive director Carl Monk, is cited as saying that "these rankings are a misleading and deceptive, profit-generating commercial enterprise that compromises U.S. News and World Report's journalistic integrity.” I absolutely agree.

Now it seems that new games are afoot in the ranking system. ("Change Ahead for Law School Rankings"). It seems that US News wants to include part-time students in its ranking process, which could prompt some law schools to drop such programs in order to keep up their rankings because part-time students don't fit into the same profile as full-time students. According to Daniel D. Polsby, dean of George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, cited in the article,

"At every law school I know with a part-time program you are talking about [students who are] older, racial or ethnic minorities, people with jobs and families, people with interesting life experience that kids who are just past adolescence can't be expected to have," he said. ‘Their college records are many years in their past [part of US News ranking criteria] and a less impressive measure of the law student he or she will be. Shutting them out will damage the profession.’”

We have now come full circle, haven’t we? If you don’t have a proper “pedigree” you can’t get into the high ranked school, if you can’t get into the high ranked school, you can’t get the mega-bucks BigLaw job, thus lowering your school's ranking . . .

Enough already!

For those who are still hung up on law school rankings, however, you may find it interesting to learn that many members of NAFLP come from Tier 1 law schools such as Columbia, University of Virginia, UCLA, George Washington, Boston College, Notre Dame, Washington and Lee, Seton Hall, UC Hastings, Indiana University, and Brooklyn Law School. We even have two members from No. 1 ranked Yale Law School. Yours truly graduated from No. 73, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also Tier 1.