This is my new academic home. But this isn’t a post about it but rather what we do in universities. It is the concatenation of several events over the past few weeks. They are my immersion into a new law school, a conversation with a director of a public affairs think tank, and reading some articles about the role of university disciplines. And finally, visiting an art exhibition held in the science department at UCD.
I have always been a hybrid. I’m trained in both law and sociology and and I am happy to straddle the boundary between them. This doesn’t always fit in with the ways universities like to organise themselves. That is done according to disciplines or subjects so we can have schools and departments. And, when, as in the UK, one has reviews like the Research Excellence Framework (REF), disciplinary boundaries become sharp indeed. Funds, PhD students, research fellowships are jealously guarded and ring fenced.
But is this the best way for us to educate and to do research? Administrative convenience is no reason for continuing this state of affairs. It is by breaking boundaries we discover new ideas and ways of formulating them. Law is a good example of this. For years law has followed a settled path of teaching “core” subjects. It has become habituated to it. It exists in its own bubble. Yet from all around are voices talking about commodification of law, the globalisation of law, and law as an offshoot of behavioural economics, for example. None of the core courses take account of these.
Just recently there has been a mini-revolution in the teaching of university economics. Students have clamoured for a more realistic type of economics, one that recognises its failure in the recession. Oxford and many other institutions are now putting forward a new curriculum. It isn’t exactly May 1968 all over again, but there has been change. Unfortunately, law has not been so visited. Even the Legal Education and Training Review in the UK seemed empty of student contributions.
Terry Eagleton wrote that he was worried that with the commercialisation of higher education the humanities could suffer, even be eradicated from the university, which would result in their death. He’s right. If we take the commercial route–let’s have all our law graduates “practice ready”–we will impoverish our students’ education. However, I’m not sure that we do much better right now. In Europe, as opposed to the US, law is posed as a liberal education. Yet much of what students learn is technocratic and rule-based. I have difficulty in characterising this as liberal education.
But with our disciplinary boundaries, it’s difficult to achieve a more cohesive and blended education for students. Jonathan Wolff argues for scholarship that is more confusing and more exciting, which can be done by blurring boundaries. Taking law as my case (and forgetting Eagleton’s comment “real men study law“), we can see all sorts of interesting things happening. One that appeals very much to me is the input of design into law. Margaret Hagan’s work in the use of design to improve accessibility to law by users but why not students too? (See this wonderful page on beauty and law.) I will go further. I’m involved in Law Without Walls and one of our best student projects was one that Margaret was involved in called Traffick Junction. Go look. It’s inspiring.
If we want to give our students a truly liberal law education then we must incorporate other subjects and approaches. We will enrich our cognitive capacities, expand our thought processes, and make learning (and research) more enjoyable and potentially more useful for society. It is by embracing this interdisciplinarity that we become imaginative and creative. Which leads me to the conversation with the think tank director. He talked of how he had to deal with disciplines by stealth because empires were at stake. It would take time, but one way of getting there was by what he called the “co-production of knowledge”. By crossing boundaries, by working with students, by using social media, we take knowledge out of the silo and place it in the community where it belongs.
I hope we will achieve some of this here.
From September 2014 I’m taking up a new position at the UCD Sutherland School of Law as the McCann FitzGerald Professor of International Law and Business. I’ve been an external examiner at UCD for the past three years and have got to know and like the people there.
The position is everything I could imagine focussing on globalization, lawyers, law firms, international business, all with a sociological twist. I will be running a joint MSc in international law and business with the UCD School of Business. UCD will be joining Law Without Walls as well this year.
And, of course, Ireland is about to introduce its new legal services regulatory structure which I can’t miss. (For more on this see Maeve Hosier’s new book, The Regulation of the Legal Profession in Ireland, Quid Pro Books).
UCD has opened a new law building this year which is beautiful and is one of the best I’ve seen.
It reminds me of my home in London with its open spaces and great use of glass. It’s a convivial space.
I won’t be severing all my ties with London (pace Dr Johnson). University College London has made me an Honorary Professor of Law. And I shall be a Visiting Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Westminster. I will also continue to be a member of the Research Strategy Group at the Legal Services Board.
In a way, it’s a return to my roots.
PS. The gym at UCD has kettlebells!
I gave my paper on “Are Machines Ethical?” which was based on this slide. It’s a work in development which will ultimately result in a paper.
Paul Maharg of Australian National University blogged on the session that included my paper. He’s taken the topic in an interesting direction, even to the extent of quoting from his friend’s, Peter McCarey, poem. I’ll let you read it at his post here.
(thanks to cepro.com)
Today’s post is a guest post by Catherine Gannon, managing partner at the niche law firm of Gannons. I met Catherine after writing my post on micro-law. Her firm is a good example of what I meant.
With the UK economy now recovering, can law firms expect to see a return to the pre-2008 good times, when the money rolled in and all that firms felt they needed to do to succeed was recruit more highly paid lawyers, upon the assumption that the work would follow? In short, no.
The legal services market has changed out of all recognition into a much harder, more competitive environment.
There are three main reasons for this:
1.The economic slowdown itself;
2.More demanding, better informed clients; and
3.Commoditisation of legal services.
The economic slowdown necessarily saw a reduction in demand for legal services, with clients becoming much more price sensitive. Accordingly, firms have gone bust, merged and/or made redundancies, having to cut out the “fat middle” of expensively paid fee earners, who could do the work but not bring in the business.
Even with an upturn in demand things aren’t going to go back to where they were before. Corporate clients’ procurement procedures are much more developed and aggressive and are going to remain that way. Lawyers are regarded as far from elite and are seen as an expensive overhead if they cannot demonstrate real value.
In the round, in respect of both corporate and individual clients, new technology means that the market is much more transparent and information that lawyers could otherwise charge for is much more easily available. Clients are in a stronger negotiation position and have higher expectations as to what their money should buy them.
However, perhaps the biggest factor that has increased competition and driven down prices and will continue to do so is the deregulation of the legal services sector (as driven by the Legal Service Act 2007) and commoditisation of legal services.
Law firms are being exposed to competition from commercial business, that treat legal services as a product like any other. Any high volume process driven services can be provided by relatively unskilled labour, wherever its cheapest to hire it, and technology is making it increasingly straightforward to provide standardized (low cost) legal products into parts of the legal sector, including the corporate and commercial market, which had perhaps until recently been considered by practitioners as being immune from “Tesco Law”.
How to survive (and prosper)?
Lawyers have to adopt a different approach to how they work, shaking off the conservatism of the past and adopting a more entrepreneurial attitude focused on meeting clients expectation.
Smaller firms that can’t compete on volume/cost need to provide a niche service and all lawyers have to provide a “value added” service. The traditional role of providing neutral advice on the law has to give way to lawyers acting more as problem solving consultants, with better and broader commercial knowledge and understanding of the world their clients operate in. Academic excellence has to be combined with a genuine business focus which is an area lawyers struggle with as their background and training typically lends itself to detailed analysis rather than the “quick and dirty” approach often taken in business. Lawyers on a personal level feel more comfortable if they have advised on all bases but these days the clients are not prepared to pay for lawyers to feel comfortable.
Lawyers have to be excellent communicators, being able to provide their services through a full range of media, whenever and wherever the client needs it, taking full advantage of social media to both develop business and maintain client contact. Clients expect to be relieved of their problems and kept fully kept informed. Additional expense can only be justified by excellent service quality on demand to suit the client rather than to suit the solicitor.
In many ways lawyers are now operating like hairdressers in that they can be chopped and changed at the drop of the hat with the exception being hairdressers do not carry such large overheads in terms of insurance and compliance.
Absolute clarity on fees and a willingness to provide meet clients requirements for services to be delivered on a fixed cost basis is the way charging has to go, rather than this being resisted. This is a difficult challenge as in many cases when a matter starts there is little visibility on the work involved yet clients do not understand, or rather, will not accept a fudge answer. The outcome is the margins for law firms are reduced and one of the reasons is these days considerable work goes into the fee estimation process before terms are agreed and clients use the fee estimation to shop around. There is always someone who can under cut to win the business.
The business structures that lawyers adopt need to be flexible and allow for the involvement of other professionals with disparate and valuable expertise.
In a nutshell, lawyers need to focus on recognizing client expectation and finding new and effective ways of meeting them.
Innovation and entrepreneurialism will bring the rewards. With change come winners and losers and there is scope to be a winner.
Catherine Gannon / firstname.lastname@example.org / Telephone 0207 438 1062/ www.gannons.co.uk