The picture was meant to jolt the assembled crowd of legal educators. It showed the four members of Swedish supergroup ABBA, clad in their signature 1970s pop star regalia: tall platform boots, capes, sparkle galore. To put a finer point on it, Legal OnRamp Chief Executive Officer Paul Lippe played a snippet of ABBA's hit, "Waterloo."
"We don't want to end up in our Waterloo," he warned as the photo loomed over the crowd on a projection screen; if law schools don't adapt to changes in the legal industry, they will look as outdated and ridiculous as ABBA now appears to young people.
Lippe was hardly the only voice urging a rethinking of legal education during the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in Washington earlier this month. Changes in the legal profession — and how law schools should respond — was the hot topic during the three-day conference, which drew nearly 3,000 educators. He was among the most emphatic, however, in warning that the divide between the legal academy and the profession is no longer tenable. It handicaps students by sending them into the job market without practical skills or an understanding of how lawyers operate and what clients expect, he said.
For many legal educators, the comparison to ABBA seemed unfair, given that a growing number of them are retooling their curricula to meet the changing demands of legal employers. More than 500 law professors and administrators packed into a daylong session to discuss curriculum innovations, seek the correct balance between traditional and practice-based courses and debate which skills to teach in light of the broad range of careers their graduates pursue. ...
[T]here remains a gap between the magnitude of change advocated by some within the profession and the modest innovations law schools are pursuing. Those innovations include a wider array of clinics, harnessing technology in simulations and student projects, and teaching transactional lawyering skills. [See Five Innovative Law School Programs below.]
"I think they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Susan Hackett, chief executive officer of consulting firm Legal Executive Leadership and former general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel. "The discussion seems to be, 'Let's add a Thursday evening extra-credit course on the legal profession that meets for a couple of hours.' That's just tweaking around the edges."
Instead, Hackett suggested a re-engineering of law curricula to include an initial phase of core courses followed by a year of executive education-style classes covering topics including business skills, legal technology and behavioral management. The final phase would involve clinics or externships in law firms, legal departments, government agencies or nonprofit organizations. These could replace the traditional law firm summer associateships and would be more substantive, she said.
Missing in the conversation was any focus on what skills corporate clients actually want in their lawyers, Hackett said, such as the ability to solve problems and understand financial statements. "I truly think there are a significant number of people in legal education who think that what a client wants is irrelevant," she said. "They just want to teach the law."
Others warned that framing the discussion solely in terms of what large law firms and corporate clients want ignores that the vast majority of law school graduates don't work in so-called Big Law, but rather in small firms, solo practice, government or nonprofits — or even as nonlawyers. Identifying exactly what skills and knowledge students should take away from law school is more complicated than critics suggest, said University of Richmond School of Law Dean Wendy Perdue and Northeastern University School of Law Dean Emily Spieler. ...
Peter Kalis, chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates, said he considers the criticism leveled against law schools misplaced. Law schools' failure lies not in their inability to teach practical skills, but rather in their diminishing ability to produce lawyers "able to speak the language of the law with confidence," he said. "My viewpoint is not all that representative of managing partners, I'll admit, but I believe law schools should concentrate on the education of law students from the perspective of acculturating them in the rule of law," Kalis said. "Law students should spend that time being immersed in and becoming familiar with common law subjects."
The AALS attendees largely agreed that, in the future, most law schools will combine traditional bread-and-butter law curricula with courses, externships and clinics geared toward building real-world skills and knowledge about the legal profession. ...
Despite the talk, responding to changes within the profession does not rank as high with law faculties as their scholarly research, said Gillian Hadfield, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Morgan agreed: "Real, substantive change is still in the very early stages."
Indeed, most law schools are taking baby steps with pilot programs and new courses that tend to serve relatively small numbers of students and require more resources than traditional lecture courses. ...
As ardently as law firm leaders and other practitioners say they want law schools to step up and better train lawyers, the legal hiring market has yet to signal that it recognizes the value of innovative teaching and curricula, said William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington who studies the profession.
"There's no employer out there right now — not law firms, not the Department of Justice, not the ACLU — that are seeking out these graduates. These programs haven't affected hiring patterns," Henderson said. "It's still all sorted out with credentials. It's based on the brand of the law school."