In our recent white paper for the Clayton Christensen Institute titled Disrupting Law School, Michele Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University, and I write that the forces of disruptive innovation have arrived firmly in the world of legal services and will likely only accelerate in the years ahead. Many law schools are under severe threat because of the resulting change in the labor market for lawyers. That threat is likely to accelerate when, not if, a disruptive innovator emerges in legal education (in this context, the news of 2U’s partnership with Syracuse to build an online juris doctor (JD) program is worth watching).

One question we pose in the paper is will any current law schools set up an autonomous entity and drive this disruption themselves, or will entrants emerge that disrupt law schools? Launching an autonomous entity is a proven way to combat the impact of disruption by using the incumbent’s superior resources to pioneer the disruption and creating enough separation so that the parent entity’s existing processes and priorities do not stifle the new entity.

In the paper we pose two other ways forward for law schools. First, schools can use online learning as a sustaining innovation to improve learning and control costs. Second, they can specialize by creating programs that allow JD students to focus deeply on a particular area of law. Students could learn core subjects through online, competency-based programs and their in-person experience would focus on extensive training in a particular area of law through experiential learning courses, clinics, capstones, directed research, and field placements.

But there are further dimensions of the reality facing law schools—and one other step they can take.

In many cases, the top law schools won’t have to change much to stay relevant. There is likely to be a continuing market for JDs at the high end of the market. Elite law schools are unlikely to be disrupted.

For law schools outside of the top echelon, however, they will have to innovate to survive. In addition to the three options we named in the paper, there is at least one other route available to them that would require they change what and how they teach and for what purpose.

Law schools willing to innovate could build new, non-JD degree programs that specialize in training students for careers that combine elements from law, business, and government—in international trade, for example—but do not fit neatly into existing law, business, or government schools and are less time consuming and expensive than, say, a joint JD-MBA.

The law schools capable of making an interdisciplinary move like this would likely be at a university that didn’t have an existing business or government school that would be threatened by the move.

Doing something like this—or creating a very specialized JD degree in line with our third option—plays off of an insight into surviving disruption that has emerged from our research in the last few years.

It appears that if an entity can organize solely around a critical “Job to be Done”—that is, the reason people “hire” products or services in a given circumstance—then it might be able to obviate disruption entirely.

There are two reasons for this. First, organizing around a Job reduces an organization’s overhead costs significantly. As an organization delivers on a Job, processes emerge, and if the organization focuses on just one Job, then the processes become very efficient. If you try to do lots of Jobs for lots of people, however—as current universities do—then organizational processes become complicated and overhead rises accordingly. Second, if an organization focuses on an important Job in the lives of customers and does it well, it can charge premium prices that customers are willing to pay.

A story about the retail giant IKEA illustrates the opportunity. Some 50 years ago, Ikea sold low-cost furniture. Today it still sells low-cost furniture, and it has not been disrupted in any way. It has neither gone “upmarket,” as most businesses and independent schools seeking to be “better” do naturally, nor has someone come underneath IKEA to push it upmarket.

So what gives? It’s not that there hasn’t been disruption in retail. There has been plenty, from discount retail to online retail.

It instead appears that IKEA has avoided the up-market allure by remaining focused singularly on nailing one Job to be Done. That Job isn’t to sell low-cost furniture. If that is all that it was doing, surely low-cost entrants from China could disrupt it from below.

The Job that IKEA has focused on, rather, is the idea that “We need to furnish this apartment today!” IKEA engages its own designers to create furniture kits that customers can retrieve from the warehouse, take home, and assemble themselves, without having to wait for delivery. IKEA designs furniture that is explicitly meant to be temporary, not to become heirlooms. IKEA offers childcare because unfettered concentration on furniture purchases is an important experience; and it positions an affordable cafeteria in the store so customers can refuel. Although IKEA has been slowly rolling out across America for some 30 years; even though its “formula” is open for all to inspect; and despite the fact that its owner is one of the wealthiest people in the world, nobody has copied it. Nobody.

The reason? We believe that because other furniture retailers think about their market through the lenses of product category and price point, they don’t even see the need to integrate differently; and they therefore are rarely hired to do IKEA’s job. As a result, IKEA just sits there, neither disrupted nor disrupting. Were it to someday decide that it wanted to diversify and optimize itself for other Jobs, it would need to set up separate business units in order to achieve the integrated structure required to provide the experiences appropriate to those Jobs.

The evidence appears to be that if an organization aligns itself around a specific Job to be Done, then it obviates the need to disrupt others, and it causes others not to be able to disrupt you.

There appears to be a lesson here for law schools challenged by would-be disruptors: Take whatever technology and tools are available and use them to organize tightly around a Job to be Done to forestall—or completely put on hold—disruption. With the mindset of focusing on a specific Job, it doesn’t matter what new technologies emerge in the future. If a technology can help a law school do the Job that it has chosen, then it should be able to make changes accordingly and seamlessly. If the technology or tool is not useful to doing the Job, then it can ignore it.

That makes specializing—through a focused-JD program or, even more exciting, a degree that doesn’t train people to be a JD at all—an attractive option that would look very different from what any law school does today.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.