Northwestern Law Approach to Strategic Planning
David E. Van
The strategic planning process, in its truest sense, is
a relatively new and foreign concept in academia. The arrival of a new president
or dean may result in the creation of a “strategic plan”, that sets forth
that individual's viewpoint and plan. Other
academic institutions may engage in the process in order to satisfy accrediting
bodies. Some may develop a strategic plan for the sole purpose of fund-raising.
And some may avoid the process entirely because of its potential to divide
faculty and/or alumni.
Northwestern Law, we chose to embrace the concept of strategic planning. We
developed a process that some have characterized as “business-like”. As
someone who believes that academia can learn a great deal from business, I am
not uncomfortable with this view. Indeed, today’s major university, with its
research facilities, hospitals and athletic teams is not so far from its
corporate counterpart. And
today’s university president, with responsibilities in a variety of areas, is
not altogether different from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
The dean in turn must lead his or her area within that university.
For such planning to be meaningful, it must be based on
a realistic assessment of the institution’s market and a prediction where that
market is headed. Like any well-run business, we had to have a sense of what
our market seeks. Related to that
is the important commitment to identifying both our comparative strengths and
weaknesses. Those include internal
ones (for example, areas of faculty research strength or weakness, coverage of
curricular areas) and external ones (access to a strong business and legal
community, university strengths and shortcomings, and other potential academic
and educational partners). A good
strategic plan must identify significant areas in the market in which the
institution has good reason to believe that it has comparative advantages over
Finally, the plan must make choices, sometimes tough
ones, about where the institution must focus its inevitably limited resources,
both human and financial. No law
school can be all things to all people. Those
choices begin to bite when they suggest that one segment of the faculty or of
the alumni body may not see its own projects on the front burner of the plan. Tough as those choices are, a plan that does not make them
may be unobjectionable to everyone, but will not be a plan worth pursuing.
The Process at Northwestern Law
had a number of goals in mind as we designed our strategic planning process.
One of Northwestern's great strengths is its small size and close-knit,
cooperative community. Our goal was to involve students, faculty and staff in
the process as members of sub-committees looking at nine different areas. We
also made two detailed presentations to our alumni advisory board, which
questioned and challenged the assumptions in the plan. This degree of
involvement helped ensure that different points of view were heard and that we
obtained the necessary buy-in for the plan. Too often, strategic planning is
left only to the faculty, which may focus on areas that are unrelated to the law
school’s overall strategic needs. And which may require a consensus-driven
process that results in bland initiatives that do not serve to advance the
institution. In particular, we involved our alumni heavily in this process, not
because of their potential as donors, but because of the perspective and
experience with other well-run organizations they provided us.
One of the hardest things for academic institutions to accept is that they
operate in a competitive world in which they have to respond to market forces.
While academics are often personally quite competitive, academic
institutions tend to want to be the judge and jury of their own success.
We chose to understand and embrace the competitive reality and were
willing to make our best estimates as to where the profession (our main customer
base) and the wider world were headed. We studied our competitors and ourselves.
While some in academia seem reluctant to acknowledge today's competitive
reality, even the most selective of our academic institutions face competitive
pressure for students, faculty and resources. Our goal was to identify areas
where Northwestern could leverage its strengths into comparative advantages.
a "Stretch" Objective.
We decided to create a plan that would stretch our imagination and our goals. We
were unwilling to settle for “doing what we’ve been doing only a little
better.” In our view, for Northwestern to advance to the very top tier in
American legal education, we needed a plan that would chart a new course and set
us apart from our competition without marginalizing us from the center of the
international legal profession and business and political world.
We wanted to develop a plan without regard to narrow financial constraints.
While all plans are eventually subject to financial limitations, we believed
that our plan could be more visionary and more imaginative if it was initially
developed without considering the resources that might be needed to accomplish
it. We would reach the resource issue as we began to implement the plan in
accordance with our budget process.
We wanted to set measures of our success and hold ourselves accountable. If we
could not come up with objective accountability measures, then the plan was too
vague to be of much use. Strategic
plans, even those that lend themselves to accountability measures, are too often
drafted, put into glossy publications, and then gather dust on the shelf because
there is no mechanism to pressure for implementation. Our goal was to ensure
that our plan came alive. We made commitments to all members of our community
including the Board of Trustees of the University and are now in the process of
fulfilling those commitments.
In short, we did not want to develop a watered down
document – one which would please everyone – and no one. We developed a
strategic plan that sets out a clear vision of a distinctive approach to legal
education, that addresses the realities of the market, that makes significant
choices, and that sets objective measures of success. We used it as the basis
for developing initiatives in the areas of admissions and placement, faculty,
curriculum, our community and our physical plant. We identified initiatives that
would require a change in process or philosophy as well as those which would
require increased financial resources. The latter initiatives formed the basis
of our capital campaign. We are now in the process of implementing our plan and
reporting our progress to our community.
The Strategic Plan
The overarching theme of our plan is "building the
great law school for the changing world."
The plan sets forth a vision and philosophy of legal education that
leverages Northwestern's strengths. What we have mapped out is a vision that we
believe will produce more successful students because they are better prepared
for the increasingly competitive world. We
also firmly believe that over time the merits of this vision will be widely
recognized by employers, by applicants, and by the world at large as the
superior model, which in turn will propel our reputation to the top. It is a theme that captures the imagination and that can be
easily understood by all members of our community. As we go about making any
strategic decision, we can ask ourselves how the decision fits into our idea of
a great law school. We may never reach this objective, but the vision is worth
This paper will describe our competitive analysis and
view of the future of the legal profession. It will set forth our key strategic
initiatives and it will conclude with a discussion of the implementation of the
Plan to date.
Changing Legal Profession and the Changing World
The legal profession and legal market have undergone
radical change even in the almost 17 years since I graduated from law school.
The pace of change continues to accelerate. Many of these are economic and
societal changes that have affected all of us.
A More Competitive
A major change that has impacted the role of law and
lawyers is that the business world is simply more competitive and more global.
Thanks to advances in technology, even the smallest business down the street can
have a global presence. And customers, whether for widgets or legal services,
expect to receive more in less time. A lawyer no longer has the luxury of
sending a letter to a client with the expectation that she won’t have to
return to the matter for a couple of days until the client reads the letter and
responds. With email, cellular phones, personal digital assistants and laptops,
all of us operate in a “24/7” climate.
Second, law increasingly impacts our daily lives. There
has been significant growth in legislation over last 30 years. Through both
legislation and judicial decision, there has been a dramatic expansion of rights
and remedies in areas as diverse as disability and product liability. The
increased litigiousness of society impacts business and commercial decisions.
And lawyers must be conversant in their client’s business if they are to offer
the best advice for responding to, and, indeed, anticipating legal challenges to
the way that the client does business.
Third, there has been an increasing scrutiny of the
quality of justice in society. For instance, as has been demonstrated by
Northwestern Law’s Center for Wrongful Convictions, there are serious concerns
about the administration of justice in death penalty cases.
Changes in the
The legal profession has not been immune to these
changes. Once thought to be one of the most secure professions, the practice of
law, like accounting and medicine, has become more of a business and less of the
gentlemanly notion of a profession. Our image of Abe Lincoln engaged in a
generalist, solo practice in which clients sought out his advice because of his
superior legal expertise is an image of the past.
Much law practice has become highly specialized as the amount of
regulation has increased. Clients
are looking for representation that is not merely effective, but also
economical. Like other parts of their business, whether in the manufacturing
plant or the sales force, they seek efficient legal service.
They seek firms with the resources to represent them around the world.
Lawyers who can attract those kinds of clients demand to be compensated for that
There has also been a change in the power in the
profession. Law firms no longer call the shots in the client relationship.
Corporate legal departments are headed by savvy, business-focused and
bottom-line driven general counsels. And
they want responsive, reliable, knowledgeable and cost effective counsel and
they are more willing to shop around for it than ever before. Clients view many
outside business lawyers more like traditional suppliers who must compete for
the business and must manage their costs effectively.
This in turn has altered the practice of law in a
number of ways. First, there is great pressure to secure and keep clients.
No longer can a firm count on a steady pen of clients handed down from
prior generations of partners. Lawyers
must market their firms and themselves (just like everyone else does).
Many law firms have added professional marketing people and are spending
vast sums on marketing efforts that not too long ago would have seemed unseemly,
if not a violation of ethics rules.
A second consequence is that compensation within a firm
is going to those lawyers who are most successful at bringing in and keeping the
business or who have a highly developed specialty that other lawyers have
trouble replicating. This has led
to greater mobility of lawyers between firms as they take their book of business
or special expertise to another firm for a better cut of the financial pie.
The idea of partners moving between firms like professional athletes is
relatively new. As we know, the
loss of firm loyalty has moved down the chain and young associates are
constantly solicited to move to a new firm for a larger pay package.
The darker side of this is that a partnership in a firm
rarely has the same meaning it once did. It
is no longer an effective right of a substantial life long income.
In the early 1990s, underperforming partners began to be let go by their
lifelong firms. Security is a thing
of the past.
While some decry these changes as a “loss of
professionalism” in our field, I tend to see them as positive for the most
part. Far too often a claim of a
“loss of professionalism” is really a statement that the market is more
competitive and “I do not like that.” Our students have many more opportunities both immediately
after law school and all during their careers than did the students of my day.
The profession is now far more open to different career paths, and
rewards those who are entrepreneurial.
Moreover, one size career no longer fits all. The
traditional path, from college to law school to a law firm job to a partnership
in that law firm to retiring to be of counsel in that same firm, has ceased to
be the standard. People are able to
move to find what they enjoy and what they do best.
Far too often before these changes, a lawyer would wake up in his 50s
having toiled at the same job since law school to realize that he might really
have preferred to do something else. Today,
young lawyers have far more flexibility and options because the profession has
opened up and become more competitive.
These changes have contributed in part to how students
entering law school view their education and their profession.
At Northwestern, we have an ever-increasing percentage of students who
have two or more years of work experience before entering law school (currently
almost 60% of the entering class). They have seen more of the world that law
serves. These students look at a
law degree much differently than students of even 10 years ago.
Unlike their predecessors, they do not envision making
a lifelong commitment to one law firm with the only concern being whether or not
they make partner in seven or eight or nine years. Although some will go that
route, even those who join the mainline big firms view their first job as the
opportunity to continue to learn, to develop skills and to network as they
determine their true calling.
They look at a legal education as a springboard to a
wide variety of opportunities. Young lawyers today face the prospect of a
multi-job career where they can readily move between firms and corporations or
government and public service, depending on the challenge of the position, its
compensation or lifestyle opportunities.
The increased intertwining of law and business has made
it incumbent on a lawyer to develop a good working knowledge of the client’s
business. He or she must fit into the business culture, must be a team player
and must build relationships and work well with other members of management to
advance the business. Just like the
marketer or product development person on a project team, the lawyer contributes
by assessing the risks of proposed plans, counseling on various structures of
deals and negotiating on behalf of the team.
The legal profession has been wrestling with these
changes for years. But law schools have remained behind. They have not responded
to the challenges or opportunities these changes create.
Many law schools continue to train lawyers to be judges or professors or
to be part of the cadre of lawyers who rotate in and out of the revolving door
of government service. That’s the Yale model and it still probably works
pretty well for Yale. But it doesn’t work very well for the 175 law schools
that aren’t Yale and may do a disservice to the graduates being produced.
Coming out of law school, lawyers are often
inadequately prepared for this new reality. They may be ill equipped to work in
a business or teamwork setting and do not have the tools like presentation or
counseling skills to help them succeed in the new environment.
As part of our planning process at Northwestern, we
spent much time analyzing and understanding these changes and determining how we
could best leverage our strengths: small student body, collegial community,
great location, a distinguished faculty and excellent ties to a great
We look at the impact of change not as a challenge, but
as an opportunity where as we say in our plan, a law degree is no longer merely
an admission ticket to a profession, but a passport to a virtually unlimited set
Based upon our understanding of the changing
environment, our review of our competition and our analysis of our strengths, we
developed five broad initiatives that form the core of our strategic plan.
To attract students with the intellectual and personal capabilities needed to be
successful in and contribute to the dramatically changing world. And to place
our graduates in challenging and rewarding positions.
admissions, we seek to attract a different kind of law student. We believe that,
to succeed in law school and in their careers, our students should have more
than the highest intellectual capacity. We want them to have the interpersonal
skills, ambition and maturity to meet the challenge of change and excel in their
order to make this assessment about applicants, Northwestern became the only
major law school with a comprehensive interviewing program. By using our staff
in Chicago and our alumni throughout the nation, we are able to offer an
interview to every applicant who desires one and our long-term strategic goal is
to require interviews of all applicants. We
look for applicants who have strong interpersonal abilities, who are motivated
to come to law school, and who have begun to develop career focus.
We are also encouraging our applicants not to come to
law school right from college, but to work for a time in nonlegal business or
governmental positions. Our
long-term goal is to admit only students who have had at least two years of such
work experience. The purpose behind
this initiative is to enroll students who understand how the world of their
future clients functions, who have developed their sense of judgment, who are
experienced in working in team environments often with people very different
from them, and who have developed good leadership and organizational skills. We also want students who are giving up more to come back to
law school, such as a decent salary and comfortable life style.
We believe that students with such work experience are more focused to
succeed in our community and bring different points of view to any discussion.
We initially thought that by establishing these new
criteria and the interviewing program, our LSAT scores would drop.
That was a calculated risk we took, expecting that in the long run we
would be more attractive. In fact,
the reverse has happened. Our median LSAT score rose in each of the first three
years that we have conducted the program and our median LSAT and GPA scores are
the highest that they have ever been.
In job placement, our immediate goal was to place our
students as successfully as our peers were doing. It was an area where we had
fallen behind. We have now caught up to the top schools in the country in
terms of job placement at graduation (99%) and nine-months out (99%).
For the long term, our goal is to empower students to manage and get the
most out of the multi-job career they are beginning and to expand the number and
variety of first-job opportunities to include, among others, consulting firms,
banking and accounting firms and government and public interest agencies. We
also seek to increase the placement of our graduates in clerkships because these
positions provide experience for almost any career.
To develop and retain an internationally recognized faculty.
Since its founding, Northwestern has maintained a
distinguished and highly regarded faculty. Building on this strength, our goal
is a faculty that is diverse in background and perspective that will contribute
to resolving the leading issues of the day.
Law schools must contribute to the understanding of law and legal
institutions and faculty must play a leadership role.
In assessing the trends, we concluded that the nature
of legal scholarship was likely to continue to change.
Thirty years ago, careful doctrinal analyses of case law with armchair
policy analysis ruled the day in law schools.
Tenure standards were weak, if they existed at all.
The law professor was often an excellent lawyer who had moved into the
academy and could easily migrate back to the relatively unspecialized practice
at any time.
That has all changed.
Faculty have been pressured on two fronts.
Universities began to question the difference in both research
productivity and tenure standards between their law schools and their other
departments. Those pressures have
led to more academic faculty. From
the profession side, much of the doctrinal analysis that was the bread and
butter of traditional law faculty is now being done by excellent practitioners,
who have the advantage of armies of associates to assist in the laborious
research and who generally are closer to the real practice in the doctrinal
areas on which they write than any full-time law faculty member could be.
The area in which law faculty have a comparative
advantage is in research that illuminates law and legal institutions.
That type of work is likely to have a strong interdisciplinary focus
whether it is empirical or normative. A
law academic’s advantage is in the application of various disciplinary methods
to help us understand the empirical operation of law and legal institutions.
Vaguely recognizing these changes, many law schools in
the past thirty years have added to their “law and . . . “ complement of
faculty with some quite mixed results. The
danger has been that such a hire can be someone who would have a difficult time
getting an appointment in the law school’s sister economics or philosophy
department and who simply wants a job (at a relatively high salary) to continue
to write the material he or she would have written in the department.
At other times, the danger has been that the interdisciplinary faculty
member is treated as a zoological specimen who adds exoticness to the
environment. More traditional
faculty may have the view that we already have "our economist", why
would we want more.
The future, however, lies in truly interdisciplinary
work on law and legal institutions with much of it being empirical.
Our plan identifies the need to focus our hiring efforts in bringing in
people, preferably JDs with top quality PhDs, who are interested in examining
law and legal institutions from the access point of a law school.
Northwestern fortunately has had a long tradition of
interdisciplinary work and a close relationship with our neighbor, the American
Bar Foundation, both of which are assets that give us a comparative advantage.
We are also part of a top-flight research university with strong departments
that encourages cross-school appointments and other forms of cooperation.
(As an adjunct to this, we are focusing our resources on developing the
leading JD/PhD program in the country to produce scholars of the type we believe
will dominate in both the law school and departmental markets.) The key is quality. We
have hired and continue to look for interdisciplinary scholars who could secure
appointments in top-ranked departments, but who choose to work in a law school
in order to be in a community of scholars interested in understanding law and
A second decision that came out of the process was the
need to build research faculty in the areas in which we have reason to believe
we can be the leader. As can be
guessed, this is a contentious issue. We
realized, however, that we cannot cover every last possible area of research or
every last new trend out there. The
investment in a tenure-track research faculty member (who achieves) has a
present value cost of about $3 million. Our
plan identifies five specific substantive areas in which we believe we have a
comparative advantage to excel. These
include public and constitutional law (both domestic and international), where
we can build on a strong group of existing scholars who are particularly attuned
to constitutional structure issues. Criminal
law both substantive and procedural is another area; our assets here include not
only strong existing research faculty, but also a leading clinical program
(particularly strong in the juvenile criminal and wrongful conviction appellate
areas) and close ties to the Chicago courts and criminal bar.
Related to that is our strength in the litigation and dispute resolution
area, again with not only a strong research faculty and close connections to the
Chicago practice, but also nationally ranked simulation programs in trial
advocacy and in negotiations and dispute resolution as well as a strong dispute
resolution program at our sister business school, Kellogg.
Finally, we have a tremendous opportunity and advantage in the area of
business and commercial law given our existing research faculty, our close
relationship with Kellogg, our Corporate Counsel Center, home to some 50 large
public company members, and our strong relationship with the Chicago and
national business community.
Finally, being a professional school, we must have
faculty who can and who love to teach challenging professional students and who
are willing to engage with them and learn from then as well.
Again, we have a comparative advantage over many other law schools in
terms of our size and extremely low student-faculty ratio.
We also have a long tradition in our unique James A. Rahl Owen Coon
Senior Research Program of supporting faculty and students working together on
producing published research.
To build our educational program to meet the challenges of the changing world.
Our goal is to build an educational program that: a)
provides a strong core foundation in the law and legal reasoning; b) exposes
students to the law, as practiced and in action; c) builds teamwork and
communications skills; d) reflects the increasing globalization of law and
business; and e) shares an understanding of law and legal institutions with
All decent law schools provide reasonably sound
training in legal analysis and reasoning. It
is necessary to maintain the highest standards, but that will not give us an
edge over our competitors. Our
distinctive model focuses on adding to that core foundation educational
opportunities and experiences that build in our students other abilities and
skills and that accelerate the development of their judgment.
The plan identifies a number of areas and initiatives
including the following:
will build on our strong clinical program and emphasize our distinctive
connection between pedagogy and reform of
the law and legal institutions.
will strengthen our close relationship with Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate
School of Management and take advantage of
partnering opportunities for educational offerings involving both schools.
will help our students build their teamwork, presentation and communications
skills. This is a
direct response to the changes in the
marketplace and in what it takes for our students to succeed.
will expand our international programs by focusing on private international law
and building on our strengths in
human rights. Again, we identified
the two international areas in which we see our students
playing a major role.
To preserve and support our strong, cooperative learning community.
One of Northwestern's historic strengths has been its
supportive community where law is taught and learned in a cooperative and
collegial environment. We made the strategic decision to maintain the size of our
entering class at 200 students and established a goal to create additional
opportunities for interaction between students and faculty at all levels.
We dramatically reduced the size of the first year sections in the
required courses to increase the interaction between these students and faculty.
We also have empowered our students to participate in their own education
and in changes around the Law School. Students,
particularly of the type we are now attracting, are tremendous assets that law
schools in the past have underutilized. Not
only do they pay the tuition, but more importantly, their success is what drives
our reputation over the long term.
To provide the infrastructure necessary to support exceptional research and
We established a goal to provide support for
scholarship and learning through the library, research assistance, student
services, technology and physical facilities. We made the strategic decision to
provide this support at a parity level to our competitors. We did not believe
that we could attain a comparative advantage by providing superior technology,
for example. However, we also committed that the quality of our support will
never be the determining factor in the decision that a prospective student or
faculty member makes about coming to Northwestern.
and Progress to Date
Our strategic plan sets forth the measures by which we
will determine our progress. They include objective criteria relating to student
quality, placement success, faculty reputation and quality, as well as our
overall reputation, as determined by various sources. We also committed to
report back to our alumni and our community on our progress in implementing our
plan. We reorganized our visiting
committee into the Law Board, which has the mission of overseeing and monitoring
the implementation of the Strategic Plan.
This accountability commitment ensured that the plan
would serve as the blueprint for Northwestern 's future. And I am pleased to say
that it is used today throughout the Law School to guide our decisions in
virtually all major areas. Providing
regular reports on our progress to the Law Board, the faculty, alumni, and
students also invites comment and criticism that enables us to refine the plan
as we move forward.
We have achieved great success in the two years since
our faculty and alumni approved the plan. Some key examples include:
admissions, we are attracting the strongest students in our history and almost
80 per cent have at least one year of post-college work experience, compared to
only 60-65 per cent at most leading schools.
Moreover, about 60 per cent have at least two years of such experience.
We have retained our superb record on gender and ethnic diversity while
becoming more geographically diverse. This past year, we interviewed more than
half of our applicants and are moving toward both an interview and a work
placement, we have accomplished our near term goal of placing students at rates
equal to that of the top rates of our peer schools, while expanding the number,
geographic reach and type of employers visiting campus. We have not yet made the
progress we would have liked on judicial clerkships.
recruitment has been one of our top priorities. Over the past two years, we have
added distinguished scholars and rising researchers to our faculty as well as
enhanced our diversity. Our faculty remain ever more active in influencing the
leading issues of the day. For instance, on the issue of presidential
impeachment, Northwestern Law faculty were regularly quoted on both sides of the
issue. And our faculty members have played leading roles on the issues of death
penalty and juvenile justice reform.
have expanded our curriculum in a number of areas in accordance with the plan.
We are offering more courses
both to regular JD and to MBA students with Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate
School of Management, and this year we became the first university to offer a
three-year program leading to a joint JD/MBA degree. Presentation and
communications skills are now part of our first year "legal writing"
and team-building skills are also a focus of our International Team Project,
where students conduct research in Chicago and then go on-site in a number of
countries to explore and address legal issues. This program has been
extraordinarily well-received as more than
80 students have traveled to Ghana, Singapore, South Africa and Tanzania during
the past two years. Our clinical
offerings have expanded with among other additions our transactional Small
Business Opportunity Clinic, which works with Kellogg’s Entrepreneurship
Program, and our International Human Rights Center.
to foster our close sense of community, we continue to maintain a very favorable
faculty-student ratio. We reduced the size of our first year classes to 50,
which resulted in enhanced student participation and interaction.
continue to work on our infrastructure and have identified areas where the Law
School facility must be modernized to meet the demands of today's teaching and
The strategic planning process has been an
extraordinarily positive one for the Northwestern Law community. As can be
appreciated, the discussions on the initiatives were spirited and at times
rather heated. But to me, that meant that we were focusing on the right issues
and establishing priorities. Had we chosen to skirt these issues, neither the
plan nor the process would have been very successful.
Some have described our plan and our process as the
standard for strategic planning in academia. Indeed, it has been well received
both in the Northwestern University community and among my colleagues at other
law schools. It is a challenging and often frustrating process, but, at the end
of the day, all of us who were involved have found it to be immensely rewarding.