Paul L. Caron

Saturday, January 14, 2012

While Law Schools Dither Over Reform, the Legal Profession May be Passing Them By

StuckNational Law Journal, While Legal Academia Dithers Over Reform, the Profession May be Passing Them By:

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over the crowd on a projection screen; if law schools don't adapt to changes in the legal industry, they will look as outdated and ridiculous as ABBA now appears to young people.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."

National Law Journal, Five Innovative Law School Programs:

The AALS asked legal academics to describe innovative teaching methods and curricula, and more than 100 faculty members answered the call. Here are a few examples:

  • Maryland David Bogen uses a computer program called the Critical Review Examination System to improve the feedback students receive about essay questions. Students respond to a question, and the program leads them through a series of additional questions, based on that answer, that are designed to spark further analysis and a better understanding of the issues.
  • Loyola-L.A. professor Therese Maynard teaches a course called Business Planning: Financing the Start-up Business and Venture Capital Financing. In the role of lawyers, students help launch a hypothetical start-up company.
  • Indiana – Bloomington professor Amy Applegate runs a family and children mediation clinic in partnership with faculty and students in the university's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The two sides collaborate to address violence and abuse through family law mediation.
  • Faculty at North Carolina and Cincinnati jointly offer a course called Becoming a Professional that uses distance-learning technology. It covers changes in the legal profession, encourages students to reflect on their professional paths and requires students to work in teams on projects.
  • St. Thomas (Florida) Law professor Ira Nathenson uses online role-playing simulations in his Cyberlaw class. The students play associates in a law firm, and Nathenson the firm managing partner, opposing counsel and client.

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This is precisely why I think that practical training in the real world should be a requirement to graduate law school.

Posted by: SFJD | Jan 19, 2012 12:41:03 PM

In Germany the government pays the law school graduates a salary for two years while they volunteer to work at law firms for free to gain experience.
Since many are fluent in English, I got a lot of free research when my one-man firm qualified to accept them for 3 month stints. (I say this in the past tense because after marrying the last one ten years ago she doesn't want me to have any more of them since you can't specify male-only.)

Posted by: Curious Passetby | Jan 15, 2012 7:34:49 AM

Instead of conferring with one another, a significant amount of whom may never have practiced law, why not confer with practicing lawyers. Really being a lawyer practicing law is not rocket science. You must be able to read, comprehend and write. You must be able to write for and against ambiguity. You must have some innate qualities to litigate: force of personality and confidence which cannot be taught. To handle clients you must have the innate quality of persuasion, among others, which comes back to force of personality and confidence.

I agree that law schools could do more, particularly in the third year when you are absolutely bored to death and a captive, to allow students to practice their lawyering skills. However, law schools must stay grounded in teaching the rule of law, the vocabulary of law and most significantly in my opinion the analytical approach to legal problem solving.

Too much of educating becomes the trend of the day by educators more interested in innovating than in teaching.

Posted by: Pam | Jan 15, 2012 6:26:34 AM

Law-school professors are no more equipped to teach the practical skills of lawyering than practicing lawyers are equipped to do scholarly research in the law.

Professors are academics: their knowledge of the law comes from books, not experience.

Giving to law-school professors the responsibility of teaching students how to practice law is like giving to an armchair traveler the responsibility of guiding a party of climbers up the side of Mt. Everest.

Apprenticing to an able, practicing lawyer, while reading in the law, could prepare a man for practice, and save him a bundle of time and money to boot.

Posted by: Jonathan Silber | Jan 15, 2012 6:15:07 AM

First, stop doing harm. Keep the percentage of law students suffering depression and other realted psychological effects of law school at or below the levels at the beginning of 1L. As Sheldon & Krieger have shown, start by listening.

Posted by: Dave Shearon | Jan 15, 2012 5:45:39 AM

Until the law schools begin acting with integrity, they deserve no respect. If they had integrity, they would shut their doors for a few years, because they have already churned out a glut of unemployed and debt-enslaved lawyers whose families are now suffering from this. Emily Spieler, quoted above, is one of the hare-brained deans who thinks she just had to give loans to all the students her minions recruited into Northeastern Law School.

I just ran the numbers, carefully, on my own son's debt, and discovered in black and white that the minimum annual salary he can make and *just survive* is $70,000. He went into law school believing that those jobs were out there and gettable. Now we are in a family crisis that may occupy me for the rest of my life, unless I can convince the one wealthy member of the family to come to the rescue.

Posted by: Lowellguy | Jan 15, 2012 5:24:43 AM

I have been practicing in electronic financial services for about 3 decades. About 18 months ago, I received a call from the associate dean of a local law school saying the the professor who taught negotiable instruments for 30+ years was retiring, and asking me if I wanted to teach the class. I responded that my job has been to get the paper out of the payments system and offering to teach a payments class, focusing on electronic payments. The dean declined my offer, saying the class needed to be on negotiatble instruments. I declined, saying I had no interest in teaching dead parchment law.

Posted by: Payments Lawyer | Jan 15, 2012 5:22:40 AM