As I wrote in my previous post, the U.S. legal profession confines its formal training to a theoretical knowledge of law (J.D. from a law school) and an academic test of memorization (the bar exam). Licensed attorneys’ grounding in practical skills consists almost entirely of unsystematic, on-the-job improvisation. Ad hoc “qualification” whose adequacy is never reviewed by any objective or authoritative third party.
In the U.S. system, once a law firm associate passes the bar, their employer-law firm can start invoicing their hours to corporate law departments willing to pay for them.
To move from this ad hoc and casual acquisition of practical lawyer skills to organized and rigorous training, the U.S. legal system could look to three qualification models:
2. Airline pilots, and
3. Solicitors and barristers in England and Wales.
This Matters to Your Business
Physicians must complete a structured, formal residency after medical school — 3 years for internists, a minimum of 5 years for surgeons, etc. The residency features patient care and performance of medical procedures under direct tutelage of supervising doctors within a graduate medical education (GME) program.
Third party validation consists of a GME’s submitting to review by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.
Airline pilots must qualify for various licenses (e.g., private pilot, commercial pilot, airline transport pilot), various ratings (e.g., instrument, multi-engine), and qualifications to fly a particular model aircraft (e.g., B-737-800 type rating). Each with its own minimum hours of hands-on flying, “ground school”, written exams, and in-flight “check-ride” tests by experienced “check pilots”.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) provides third party validation of standards, flight hours required for each stage of qualification, and eventual licensing of both the airline pilot seeking to enter the profession and of the “check pilot” who certifies that they are ready to fly passengers.
Lawyers Qualified in England and Wales
Lawyers qualified in England and Wales (both “solicitors” and “barristers”) must demonstrate practical skills proficiency after receiving their law degree and passing a bar exam: (1) Formal coursework in work-a-day legal tasks, and (2) a two-year “training contract” at modest wages supervised by experienced lawyers.
Third party validation for this coursework and for the content of the training contract comes from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, a government agency created by the U.K. Parliament.
Law firm associates in the U.S. are given important responsibility (their mistakes can do consequential damage), and their law firm-employers charge onerous fees for their hours (onerous considering their limited practical experience) . Yet the U.S. legal profession is surprisingly casual in preparing them for real-world work, and in deciding that they are ready to do that work.
There is no reason why the performance level for practical, high-stakes corporate legal tasks should be any less standardized or any less precise than what we expect of other high-consequence professional disciplines.
And there is no reason why attorneys who perform those tasks should be exempt from accountability to an objective third party when it comes to quality assurance of their practical proficiency.
When a corporation’s legal wellbeing depends on the work of a BigLaw attorney 6 years or less out of law school, or when its P&L is being docked $300 to $500 per hour (or more) for his / her work, the business deserves methodical — and verifiable — quality assurance.
Not: “Partner A says he’s OK with Associate B’s work”.