How Major League Baseball Could Transform Lawyer Development

Spring is here, so allow me to introduce you to Joshua Palacios, a young outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays who has something to teach us about the development of new lawyers.

Josh is 25, relatively old for a prospect in baseball. But he made great strides last summer at an “alternate training site” that the Blue Jays created for their youngsters when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the minor-league season. And during spring training in March, he tore the cover off the ball and made spectacular defensive plays in the outfield. Combined with strong character and leadership skills, his new productivity made him a hot topic of conversation.

The Blue Jays have a loaded outfield in the major leagues, so Josh will likely have to wait for an injury or trade to open up an opportunity in The Show. But it’s the process by which he reached this point that’s worth our attention.

According to Josh, last summer’s alternate training site “was one of the best things that could have happened to my career. It was a risk-free environment. There weren’t any hard numbers, there were no league leaders, there was no batting average, there was no worrying about getting caught stealing or making an error. It was just free and development-based.”

Life as a minor-league baseball player can be brutal: Low pay, exhausting travel, and poor living conditions are widespread. Add to that the pressure to win and to perform your absolute best in hopes of gaining a promotion, and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety, self-doubt, and misery. (Any of this sound familiar to newly minted lawyers?)

The pandemic, by making minor-league games impractical, forced clubs to set up what you might call permanent spring-training camps where players could work out, practice, and learn — and in the process, it accidentally opened up an entirely new approach to developing teams’ young talent. (These sites will be used again this season.)

MLB.com‘s Keegan Matheson explains:

In a minor-league season, Palacios might only get a handful of opportunities over a week of game action. He’d need to reach base, have second base open in front of him, have the right count to run in and have the right pitcher on the mound. That doesn’t come up often, and with games every night and bus rides in between, there’s not always time to recreate these scenarios in warmups.

At the alternate training site, though, Palacios could attempt 20 steals in an hour if he wanted to. If he gets thrown out? Who cares? It hasn’t hurt his team and there he goes again, trotting back to first base to try again. This took the fear of failure out of the equation and created a dense, saturated environment for development. This is what GMs and farm directors envision happening at their complexes under the new minor league structure, particularly with their youngest prospects.

For a great example of what these “development complexes” look like, turn again to the Blue Jays, who just opened up a stunning new player development headquarters in Florida, designed for both minor- and major-leaguers. The Blue Jays are one of a growing number of teams coming to appreciate that real competitions with real stakes and career-changing consequences for failure — whatever their other benefits — cannot be the only way for young people to learn a difficult and complex trade.

Yes, Josh and his teammates will eventually be expected to produce on the field and help win ballgames. But by the time that opportunity comes, they will have had a chance to train themselves in low-pressure developmental environments rather than in high-pressure winner-takes-all arenas.

Here in Canada, we require aspiring lawyers to complete a law degree, a bar admission program, and a year of apprenticed work with an experienced lawyer before they receive their licences. Setting aside the merits (and many demerits) of the first two stages, let’s take a hard look at the third.

Articling is the first opportunity many aspiring lawyers have ever had to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired up to that point in their careers. Since what they’ve learned so far has been almost entirely theoretical, the first exposure to practice feels like an icy blast of frightening reality. They invariably realize that they don’t know what they’re supposed to do or how they’re supposed to do it. It’s not impostor syndrome — it’s the actual, chilling thought: “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Under the right circumstances, such apprehension and anxiety are natural and fine — every learner progresses from knowing to “knowing how” in part by applying what they’ve learned in action, under the gun. But articling students are going from zero to 60 overnight. They’re learning everything on the job, in real time, under pressure, in profit-hungry law firms, with little guidance from their supervisors. And they know that at the end of their articling term, either a full-time job offer, or unemployment, awaits, along with a massive load of debt.

I suppose some old-school lawyers might pipe up here to say that that’s how you train the best people, by immersing them in heavy pressure from the outset and seeing who has the strength and guts to come out the other side. These lawyers are full of crap and you should ignore them.

Advanced businesses and professions understand that learning a complex trade is hard enough on its own, and that forcing learners to simultaneously compete for jobs and secure their financial welfare only generates stress and anxiety that detract from the learner’s progress towards proficiency. Josh Palacios is one of many young baseball players who are getting the benefit of that enlightened approach. The legal profession should take note.

In my report on lawyer licensing and competence for the Law Society of Alberta, I noted the many deficiencies of articling and suggested that regulators develop additional alternative means by which lawyers could apply what they’ve learned in practice. One of those suggestions — admittedly the most challenging to set up and administer — was a “teaching law firm,” where licensure applicants could receive close supervision and mentoring while delivering basic legal services to needy clients.

That would be one way of creating a “lawyer development complex” or “lawyer training site,” where licensure applicants could practise their new profession with abundant safety nets and receive developmental feedback from trained supervisors. Another way, even less pressured, would be the online “simulated law firms” used by the Law Practice Program in Ontario and the Practice Readiness Education Program in four other provinces.

There is no substitute for the real application of knowledge and skills to real-life situations. The Blue Jays wouldn’t promote to the big leagues a player who had only practised at a developmental site but never played an actual game. Similarly, law societies shouldn’t license anyone who hasn’t served real clients in some fashion. But law has no “development sites,” where you can fail as often as you like without consequences, until you get it right.

Somewhere between the first day of law school and the point of admission, that type of learning experience has to occur for new lawyers. It’s time the legal profession applied itself to making that a reality.

http://www.slaw.ca/2021/04/09/how-major-league-baseball-could-transform-lawyer-development/

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