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July 25, 2007

Harvard Law School’s reaction to changes in the profession

If you have any doubts that the legal profession is changing rapidly in fundamental ways, you should talk to Harvard Law School Professor David Wilkins.
Wilkins is the Director of Harvard’s Center on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry founded in 2004 to “understand the transformation of legal practice from a profession traditionally made up of small independent firms to a multi-billion dollar global business.”

I talked to him recently about a study the Center is now conducting entitled “How Corporate Clients Purchase Legal Services.” The conversation quickly turned to the bigger picture, including the Center’s goal of helping to change the way law schools teach.

“Law schools are preparing people to enter a profession that no longer exists,” Wilkins said, “with techniques that would work well for medieval England’s Chancery Court.” Last fall, based on a three year study, the Harvard Law School faculty unanimously approved a program to begin curricular reform.

Wilkins hopes that ultimately the new curriculum will include classroom analysis of the types of cases the Harvard Business School made famous, probing the complexities of real-life problems faced by lawyers. Some of these case studies could be derived from a large research project that the Center started two years ago to “examine how large companies make three kinds of significant purchasing decisions: ‘bet the company’ decisions (such as asbestos bankruptcy cases), long-term relationships, and individual assignments.”

The research began with focus groups and in-depth interviews of General Counsel in the investment banking business, and then expanded to commercial banking, pharmaceuticals, and the oil and gas industry. Their goal is to interview a high percentage of S&P 500 GCs in each of these industry segments, and then to build to more quantitative surveys.

The ultimate goal is to understand how corporate buyers think about legal decisions. “We all know that there is price pressure,” Wilkins said, but his research is focusing on deeper issues of how GCs define and perceive the quality of legal services.

Another goal of the Center is to improve the connection between academia and the legal profession. They have a number of programs underway to break down the barriers, including a five day program called Leadership in Law Firms which just completed a session for 45 senior partners from firms from the US and overseas.

As a reformed academic myself, I see that connection as a very important goal, and as an enormous challenge. I think it will be particularly difficult in the current environment of rapid change. The great strengths of academic research include objectivity and a systematic approach. But these take time, and the measured pace of scholarly research may sometimes mean that by the time results are widely reported, their relevance to the present could be reduced.

For example, I’ve written before about the growing influence of procurement professionals . Hildebrandt’s 2007 Client Advisory reported that “in what may be a growing trend, 11 percent of…respondents indicated that their corporate procurement departments are actively involved in the evaluation and retention of outside counsel.”

If the influence of GCs in buying decisions declines, a study of how to make GCs happy may be more relevant to protecting relationships than it is to getting new business. But in the long run that may be even more important, and I can’t wait to read the results. The first publications may appear as early as the end of this year.


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