Suffolk Law Dean Discusses GRE and the New Legal Realities

In many ways, Suffolk University Law School is emblematic of recent changes in the legal profession. Like most other law schools, it saw a steep decline in applications after the Great Recession burst the Big Law, billable hour bubble. And its employment outcomes reflect the difficulties students have faced finding a footing on the traditional associate-partner track career path.

But Suffolk is also embracing — and making — change, including in the way law schools determine who should get the chance to become a lawyer in the first place.

The school recently began to study whether GRE scores accurately predict law school success, the first step toward possibly accepting that test as an alternative to the LSAT in the admissions process — an idea subject to ongoing debate within the legal academy (Harvard Law announced earlier this month that it would begin accepting scores from either the GRE or the LSAT as part of a pilot program).

Andrew Perlman, the dean of Suffolk Law, said looking at the GRE is not about boosting applications, though he acknowledged his school’s numbers are still down about 40 percent from their peak about ten years ago and have only recently started to rise. Instead, it’s about making it easier for students to streamline their pursuit of advanced degrees.

“We’re not looking at it because we’re seeing major declines,” said Perlman. “I’m looking at it because I’m always in favor of giving people more options rather than fewer if they serve the same purpose.”

Andrew Perlman.

Perlman is trying lots of new things. Last year, he brought Integreon, a legal services outsourcing provider, on campus and put students to work with the company on e-discovery, contract management, compliance, and due diligence in transactions. He also served as vice chair of the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which, in a report last year, recommended the creation of a new ABA Center for Innovation (Perlman is now chair of that center’s governing council).

As dean, Perlman has been vocal about his intention to transform Suffolk Law into a training ground that will prepare students for the new realities of the legal industry, in which Big Law jobs are less common, and others, such as legal project manager and compliance officer are the norm. At Suffolk, only 44 percent of the class of 2015 found J.D-required jobs within 10 months of graduation. But Perlman pointed out that 64 percent of the class had found J.D.-required or J.D.-advantage jobs in that time.  

“These are huge growth areas, and we’re placing a lot of students in those jobs, and they are perfectly happy with them,” he said. “They’re happy they went to law school.”

Before serving as dean, Perlman was the founding director of Suffolk Law’s Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation, which is designed to prepare students for changes in the profession.

As for whether law schools can look beyond the LSAT, the ABA will hold a hearing in July on proposed changes to the rules governing law school admission exams. In the meantime, Perlman spoke with us about innovation in law school admissions, law practice, and legal education. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. 

Big Law Business: You signed a letter last year to support the University of Arizona for moving to accept GRE scores; and now Suffolk will study whether the GRE accurately predicts law school performance? Why?

Perlman: I think the answer to both of those questions is that there’s no reason to artificially restrict prospective law students to a particular type of exam if other types of exams are equally valid in terms of predicting someone’s ability to succeed in law school. Just as when people apply to college they might take the ACT or SAT, there’s no reason to think when people apply to law school they shouldn’t have more than one option. I applaud the University of Arizona for being innovative. If the data supports the use of the GRE in admitting students, I see no reason to restrict their ability to use that test and, for very much the same reasons, I wanted to explore and study whether that would be true here at Suffolk.

Big Law Business: How does your study work?

Perlman: What they’re doing is testing our current students by getting their GRE scores, those same students’ LSAT scores, and we would also provide … the law school GPAs of those students to see whether the GRE is equally valid in terms of predicting a future law school student’s performance.

Big Law Business: When do you expect results and to make a decision about using GRE scores?

Perlman: We’re hoping the process will be completed this summer. There’s currently a proposal to change the ABA standards for law schools in this area in a way that might affect our decision-making and the timing for it, so we’re waiting to see how that process unfolds.

Big Law Business: You were quoted saying the “mad dash” to allow GRE scores isn’t in response to declines in applications. What is it about?

Perlman: In our case, this is the second year in a row we’ve seen an increase in applications and we are on pace for a third. We’re not looking at it because we’re seeing major declines. I’m looking at it because I’m always in favor of giving people more options rather than fewer if they serve the same purpose. If it makes it easier and more cost effective to apply to graduate school, that seems, all things considered, to be a good development for people.

Big Law Business: What are your thoughts on how to address the bigger issue of the cost of law school?

Perlman: Certainly it is a big issue, and we know that it is. I think schools have handled it in responsible ways. I saw one recent study about debt loads of graduates stabilizing or declining at many schools. Tuition levels have also stabilized and decreased in real dollars; that’s certainly true at Suffolk. Schools are offering more scholarship support for students as they go through. I think law schools are, on the whole, acting in ways that are intended to benefit students and make law school a more attractive choice. 

Big Law Business: What steps have you taken at Suffolk?

Perlman: Our tuition was frozen for three years in a row. We also increased scholarships to our students as well, offering more dollars to support students as they get their legal education.

Big Law Business: Before becoming dean, you were director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation at Suffolk. What’s the idea behind that?

Perlman: Law students need to graduate with not only the traditional law skillset that law schools have taught, but with a new range of skills and knowledge that 21st century lawyers need. The institute and related concentration are designed to give students that new knowledge and those new skills — things like legal project management and process improvement, automated legal document assembly, expert system tools.

What we found is, after giving students this new kind of training, employers are responding. People are hiring our graduates into jobs that didn’t even exist 10 years ago — at large firms, corporate legal departments, even legal tech startups. It’s paying dividends for our students, and, over the long term, it’s important for the profession to have lawyers who have an understanding about how to use technology and other innovative methods in a more cost-effective way to deliver legal services. 

Big Law Business: Tell me about the jobs that didn’t exist before.

Perlman: One example would be legal project manager or legal solutions architect. Davis Wright Tremaine has an innovative arm within the firm called De Novo. They reached out to us last year looking to hire folks in legal solutions architect positions and hired two of our students. They’ve reached out to us again this year. There are all kinds of interesting positions opening up.  On top of that, a lot of traditional employers are finding it really helpful to hire graduates who are not only great lawyers but also have these insights to do the work of the firm in a new and great way that can bring down costs.

Big Law Business: What is a legal solutions architect?

Perlman: Legal solutions architects help law firms design solutions for their clients that might be outside the box — how can technology be used to drive down the cost for clients. 

Big Law Business: Despite these developments, U.S. News ranked your school 140th in its most recent rankings, and according to the employment data on your website, for the class of 2015, 44 percent were employed in full time, long term bar passage required jobs 10 months after graduation.  

Perlman: In my view, it’s more important to look at J.D.-required plus J.D.-advantage jobs. When you look at that, the results are about 64 percent. The reason I say that is because the examples I gave you — legal solutions architect, health care compliance, legal project manager — these are huge growth areas, and we’re placing a lot of students in those jobs, and they are perfectly happy with them. They’re happy they went to law school.

Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. We’ve dramatically shrunk the size of our classes. The low 300s is where we’re going to be going forward.  For all of those reasons, we’re poised to see better results in the future. A lot of law schools are similarly situated. They’ve gotten smaller, and they’ve seen the marketplace adjusting and they want to make sure the people they enroll are going to be successful on the back end.

[Editor’s note: Perlman asked to add an addendum to his answer, shown below.]

With regard to the rankings, only six law schools in the country had more ranked programs than we did, and only two other schools were ranked in all four experiential skills areas (clinics, dispute resolution, legal writing, and trial advocacy). Our overall ranking has increased ten spots since last year, and our evening program is ranked 24thin the country.  So we are making progress on the rankings front. 

Big Law Business: But surely some of that was affected by the drop in applications over the last several years?

Perlman: That’s right. Don’t mistake me; applications are up over the last few years, but relative to eight or nine years ago, they’re down, just like they’ve been down at every other law school. Our numbers are down over 40 percent relative to the peak. My point is simply that if all law schools wanted to do is bring in as much as cash as possible, they’d keep the same size class, and dig deeper and deeper into their applicant pools. Most law schools recognize that’s irresponsible.

Big Law Business: Are J.D. advantage jobs the future of the industry?

Perlman: I wouldn’t say they are the future of the industry. My point is we shouldn’t underestimate them. There are a lot of wonderful jobs that would be characterized as J.D. advantage. We’ve seen significant growth in this area — financial services compliance, health care compliance. Technically, you could hire someone who is not a lawyer to do them, but many companies prefer someone with a law degree to do that kind of work.

Big Law Business: Tell me about your work on the Commission on the Future of Legal Services and the ABA Center for Innovation. It seems like it all dovetails nicely with what you’re trying to do at Suffolk.

Perlman: They all relate to each other. The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services completed its work last year. One recommendation in that report is that innovation in legal services can’t be viewed in a snapshot in time. It needs to be sustained and ongoing attention to helping the profession innovate and helping the public gain access to legal services that are better, faster, and cheaper. The idea behind the Center is to provide a place that accelerates innovation in the delivery of legal services. That could involve developing new tools for lawyers to make their practices more effective and efficient, or tools for the public when they might not need or be able to afford a lawyer.

Big Law Business: Is this all pretty new — for the legal industry to be focused so much on the future? Is the industry playing catch up?

Perlman: I think we are. So many other industries around us are being rapidly transformed by technology and innovative methods, and the legal industry has been relatively slow to adapt to the changes in the world around us. I applaud the ABA for recognizing that it should be viewed as a leader in helping the profession change in ways that are necessary and that help the public gain access to legal services.

Big Law Business: Last year, you brought legal outsourcing provider Integreon on campus to launch the Client Services Innovation Program. What’s been the result so far?

Perlman: We’ve had a number of projects come through the partnership. Integreon has been very happy with the work; our students have benefitted, including financially because they get paid; and the clients who have been served have been very pleased with the quality of work. It’s been a win-win-win all the way around, and there’s an increasing number of projects teed up to come through the center in the coming months.

Big Law Business: What are students learning there that they couldn’t have learned elsewhere on campus?

Perlman: It’s taking what they’re learning on campus and applying it in a real world setting. We have a course in Legal Project Management and Process Improvement. They’re getting the concepts and applying what they learned in practice, getting exposed to the kinds of technology that they might be exposed to in practice and that they wouldn’t necessarily pick up in the classroom.

Big Law Business: Deutsche Bank recently announced it wouldn’t pay for work by junior attorneys; other companies have made similar moves in recent years. How can legal education keep up with changes in the market?

Perlman: I think one way we do it is by teaching our students to do things in new ways. The legal technology and innovation training is a great way to make young lawyers relevant again. If you think about the standard model, which is that law schools graduate young lawyers who go to law firms to learn about how to deliver legal services, what we’re trying to do is flip that model so that we’re graduating students who can go into a law firm and help that law firm learn a new way of doing things. I think that’s a good value proposition. If we can graduate students who have that training, it puts them in a better position and enables law firms to respond to the Deutsche Banks of the world.