Paul L. Caron

Monday, June 29, 2009

Law School 4.0

The American Lawyer: Time for Law School 4.0, by Paul Lippe:

If I need some insight into the future of medicine, I might head over to Stanford Medical School. If I wanted to learn about likely directions in finance and hedge funds, I might visit Penn's Wharton. If I were looking to make investments in computing, I might arrange a tour of a lab at MIT. If I decided to learn something about where legal practice, law firms and legal departments will be in 2014, where would I go? Not to law school.

Relative to other professional schools, law schools are extremely disengaged from professional practice — they seek neither to understand nor to influence it. As I have said previously, law has lagged behind the world of global competition — and technology-driven clients — over the last 15 years. It's now entered a whiplash period where it must catch up. ...

In the simplest terms, we can identify three phases of legal education.

Phase I was the apprenticeship system, where folks "read" law under more senior lawyers. ...

Phase II, pioneered by Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell at Harvard, created the professional school, and centered the curriculum around the case method and classroom discussion, which is the template for every law school in the country. The ABA and later the AALS worked to eradicate the trade school model, ratcheting up admissions standards and driving the emergence of the faculty as a distinct profession.

Phase III reflects the last generation or so, where law schools have grown more distant from the profession, and the legal academy has come to define itself as primarily engaged in a scholarly pursuit (like, say, literature or history), as opposed to a professional pursuit, like, say, medicine or business.

Some obvious problems with the Phase III model include:

  • Students graduate from law school with a lot of debt but without client-marketable skills, so their primary option is to serve long apprenticeships in law firms ...
  • It's no surprise that law graduates don't acquire client-marketable skills, since so many law faculty don't care much about the practice of law. ...
  • Law school is weak on empiricism — unlike, for example, medical school, which is moving in the direction of being ever more evidence-based. ...

Let me suggest some likely elements of change (some of which already are in play at Northwestern and elsewhere):

  • An accelerated curriculum, with no more than a year of case method, a year of clinical, and then a year of externship with subject area focus, along the lines of medical school.
  • More practice orientation in teaching, with far more adjunct faculty who are active practitioners. ...
  • Better use of technology (both connectivity, like video or Web conferencing, and Web 2.0 social networks) to connect schools and practitioners and clients. ...
  • A much more empirical approach to practice, forcing much deeper inquiry, rather than just trotting out hypotheticals and issue-spotting. ...
  • A move back to mission-centered management. In a recent meeting with law school deans, I asked, "If you decided the purpose of law school was to maximize the comfort and income of the faculty, what would you do differently?" The answer: "Nothing." When my wife's grandfather was a law school dean, it was understood that the law school was there to serve society, the profession and students — not vice versa.
  • A lifetime (or at least 10 years) of orientation for skills development for students/alums. ...

Call it law school 4.0.

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All good points, but I think an awful lot of this is based on the experience of a few "elite" schools. We have our share of off-in-the clouds people too, but we also have a vast number of clinical offerings, externships, and similar programs as I suspect do many law schools. I myself teach almost nothing, even comparative law, without examining the implications for legal practice and "real world" skills. I can't escape the conclusion that a lot of this "law school sucks" business is driven by mediocre students who are angry about their own choice of career together with, perhaps, an overly idealized view of other professions. The best schools in any profession are research oriented; the mediocre ones always say what good teachers they are without any evidence to support it.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jun 29, 2009 8:31:56 AM

I think this approach would better serve our students. Medical schools have understood this for years.

I would add that we should, like medical schools, have required pre-law courses for students in undergraduate schools. I would suggest that any student entering law school should have had at least one intensive writing course in college. Another required class would be Accounting.

Posted by: Richard Gershon | Jun 29, 2009 5:48:50 AM