Legal Education: From Consumer to Service Provider

The Bencher  |  March/April 2023

By Katharine T. Schaffzin

As the dean of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, I have the privilege of serving both Memphis Law students and the broader Memphis legal community. Based on my frequent interactions with members of both groups, a few generational differences have become increasingly apparent to me. Generation Z is motivated to make change and often impatient to wait for traditional hierarchical methods to see results; they are not afraid to use their voices to advance progress. They also place a premium on work-life balance: Many of today’s law students are willing to trade higher compensation for a more balanced lifestyle, while many law firms are concerned about meeting the immediate needs of their clients.

Perhaps less obvious, however, are the different perspectives of law students as consumers and law firms as service providers. Consideration of this difference will allow legal educators to assist law students as they transition to the profession.

The median age of a new law student is about 23 years old, so most law students fall into Generation Z. The median age of an attorney is 46 years old; thus, the bar is comprised of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Objectively, we are witnessing a generational divide and should expect some bumps along the way as we all try to make each other feel welcome.

Generation Z enjoyed an undergraduate experience that was quite different from that of most lawyers. Today’s law students are accustomed to a consumer-driven educational model in which universities responded eagerly to the desires of Generation Z, as they competed for enrollment despite a pandemic and a downward trend in the number of college-age students.

In recent years, higher education has redesigned itself around the demands of Generation Z for on-demand, flexible, student-centric curricula. At the same time, undergraduate expectations for reading assigned texts and writing numerous and lengthy term papers dropped as Generation Z enjoyed fewer critical reading and writing experiences in high school than earlier generations received. In this educational paradigm, Generation Z is accustomed to being the consumer.

As Generation Z students have arrived at law school, they have been greeted by a more sympathetic institution than the one from which Baby Boomers and Generation X graduated. Law schools today maintain many traditional attributes that have been adapted to reflect proven best practices and data-driven learning styles. Cold-calling and the Socratic Method still abound, but problem-solving and experiential learning have added the effective hands-on learning experiences sought by Generation Z. Faculty give more thought to varying learning styles and prioritize more frequent, feedback-focused assessment over lectures and all-or-nothing final examinations. In this way, the empirical proof about student learning coalesces with the demands of consumer-driven law students in a way that advances the interests of both educators and students.

In an effort to more aggressively meet current law students’ desire for on-demand and flexible education, several law schools have even added hybrid or fully online JD degrees devoid of geographic boundaries. But most law schools have stopped short of giving Generation Z students the full flexibility they request. Law schools recognize that law students as consumers may not necessarily choose to participate in all the aspects of legal education that will prepare them for success on the bar exam and in practice, if the choice were exclusively theirs. The first-year foundational curricula and advanced writing requirements are not going away anytime soon.

Assignments stressing critical reading and writing cannot be sacrificed in preparing one for legal practice and, in some cases, can and should be increased to better prepare students who may not have had the same opportunity to grow these skills in college as earlier generations. At some level, law schools have taken and will repeatedly have to take the unpopular position of telling customers they are not always right.

The practice of law, at its core, is a service-oriented profession. Clients pay lawyers to solve their problems. Perhaps this position was more intuitive to self-assured Baby Boomers, to the latchkey problem-solvers of Generation X, and the Millennials who had to hustle in a down market. It seems that potential law students today may not have been challenged to reflect on the service-oriented nature of the profession before committing to legal education in the ways older lawyers did. Today’s law students may be challenged to make this transition from consumer to service-provider later in their educational journeys than their predecessors.

This transition is a stark one, and legal educators can offer assistance in the transformation. Together, we can help students shift from a perspective in which others offer them solutions that meet their needs to one where they are offering solutions to others. Law schools are well-suited to address this concern because we teach problem-solving within a substantive, theoretical context every day. The challenge now is to help law students adopt those problem-solving skills in regular practice.

To do this, law schools should recognize and validate the consumer mindset in which Generation Z has been raised. They must welcome and celebrate Generation Z’s commitment to effecting imminent change on any number of issues. At the same time, law schools should explicitly reframe their role as a professional, service-oriented school that provides training for problem-solvers. Law schools should call out the need for the transition to a problem-solving mindset and encourage students to not only apply this new skill to the cases discussed in the classroom, but to broader aspects of their lives where they seek change. Students should be encouraged to practice viewing their own complaints and problems as opportunities to problem-solve in preparation for joining the legal profession. Successful practice involves identifying a problem, offering a solution, and communicating both to affected stakeholders who can assist in resolving the issue.

Consumers have developed the ability to identify problems, and current law students are no exception. As a dean, I am sometimes the recipient of letters from students to the dehumanized and amorphous “administration” demanding change. I have even been present at a meeting of student leaders in which they discussed the letter they planned to write to me, rather than engaging in dialogue about the issue at the very meeting in which I was present. Open letters call out important issues, but they do not often present reasonable solutions to which all stakeholders can agree; instead, they often put essential parties on the defense and offer little room for meaningful discussion that could result in positive change. By preparing Generation Z to resolve conflict, we can empower today’s law students to not only call out the issues about which they are passionate, but to propose innovative solutions that lead to real and sustainable progress.

Problem-solvers are challenged to research and innovate to devise potential solutions and then to communicate those opportunities to others essential to the resolution. Lawyers are retained not for the primary purpose of calling out bad behavior, but to help the parties reach resolution and move forward. Clients may demand particular outcomes that they desire, but lawyers are challenged to also research the viability of alternative solutions that meet the client’s needs and may be accepted by the other parties involved.

The transition from consumer to service-provider involves moving beyond simply identifying problems to developing solutions that can realistically be implemented. It requires moving beyond learning how to solve problems to adapting the mindset of a problem-solver. With the right assistance and ability to adapt, law schools may be ideally suited to not only assist our students to become more customer-focused and successful, but also ensure that the legal industry closes the generational gap it currently faces. As practical problem-solvers, the next generation of attorneys may be better prepared than ever to resolve the most pressing problems of our time.

Katharine T. Schaffzin is a professor of law and dean of the University of Memphis’s Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, in Memphis, Tennessee. Schaffzin is passionate about teaching trial advocacy skills and is certified by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy as a Teacher of Advocacy Skills. She is a member of the Leo Bearman Sr. American Inn of Court and the Memphis ADR American Inn of Court.

© 2023 Katharine T. Schaffzin. This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.