Paul L. Caron

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Deborah Jones Merritt: Client-Centered Law Schools

Deborah Jones Merritt (Ohio State), Client Centered Law Schools:

[L]aw schools should educate students to provide the qualities that clients seek. How would law schools do that?

Many people asking this question point to the medical school model, suggesting that law schools should adopt one (or two) years of clinical rotations, perhaps followed by additional years of residency. I would not adopt that model wholesale. For one thing, it is far too expensive for the legal profession. Medical education rests upon enormous payments from Medicare, private insurance, government research grants, and private research funding, plus hefty tuition. Medicare alone contributes $9.1 billion a year to teaching hospitals, which helps pay for resident salaries and teaching costs. We don't have that kind of government support or private insurance in law.

But that shouldn't stop us from making legal education more responsive to clients. There are solutions that lie within our grasp, some of which borrow from less well known corners of medical education. I'll limit this post to my first four suggestions.

The first step is simply to embrace client needs as a measuring stick for curriculum decisions. That's a surprisingly radical notion in legal education. We talk sometimes about meeting student needs, and we reflect other times on employer demands. We plot constantly about how to raise our US News ranking. But we rarely ask directly, does this course/program/pedagogical method maximize the value we are providing to future clients? ...

The second step is to bring clients into the curriculum. One of the best features of medical school, in my opinion, is that students practice patient interviews and meet real patients during their very first year. ...

Third, I would seek new models to add hands-on professional work to legal education. There are ambitious ideas like Bradley Borden and Robert Rhee's proposal for a law school firm. I can imagine smaller initiatives involving partnerships between law schools and particular employers. ...

Fourth, I would rethink the teaching of every doctrinal course. ...

Those are my first four ideas for creating more client-centered law schools. Since you know me by now, you can guess that I have a lot more suggestions. A few of the others are (a) academic prerequisites to law school admission; (b) upper-level "uncasebooks" that teach the law without appellate opinions; (c) courses on law practice management and trends in the business of law; (d) law practice shadowing opportunities; (e) introductions to more of the technologies used in law practice; and (f) requiring every full-time faculty member and top-level administrator to demonstrate ongoing proficiency in the rules of professional responsibility. ...

How will we pay for these changes? Not through increased tuition. I would ask all tenured faculty to recognize the disproportionate amount of time we have devoted to research during the last twenty years and to "give back" some of that time by spending a disproportionate amount of time on pedagogic reform over the next three years. Going forward, I would reduce the amount of time and money we devote to research rather than teaching. I strongly support academic research; despite its critics, research too benefits clients and society. But there were many law professors who produced outstanding scholarship before 1980; indeed, their work still influences us. Those professors generated their scholarship with heavier teaching loads, less research support, and no computers. I think we can match those standards today -- and even retain our computers.


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The problem is in practice "client" means "wealthy client" If this is the purpose of the law schools, why not reduce them to one year, and let law firms do their own training?

Posted by: michael livingston | May 26, 2012 3:06:51 AM

At my school, Campbell University School of Law, we believe the most important person in the law school is the student's future client, not the student, not the dean, not the faculty members. This perspective helps transistion the student from a "student-centered" educational experience in undergraduate school to one that focuses on the professional duties and obligations of the lawyer the stduent wishes to become. It also guides us in our curriculum offerings, pedagogy, and interactions with students. We try to imporove the practice of law one graduate at a time and keeping the needs of the students' future clients' in mind helps us do that. BTW, practice experience is counted as a plus in the faculty hiring consideration. If you haven't represented real clients it is difficult to really prepare others to do so.

Posted by: W A Woodruff | May 25, 2012 1:20:55 PM

The curriculum should be geared toward teaching skills that are useful in practice, but time spent on research and faculty salaries aren't a barrier.

There are already law schools where the professors produce very little research (or research that is no more sophisticated than anything written 35 years ago), focus entirely on teaching, have heavy loads, and are not well paid.

They are what the scam blogs refer to as "Third Tier Toilets" (TTT).

Good luck attracting quality faculty or intelligent students to such a school.

Posted by: Anon | May 25, 2012 12:42:47 PM

Of course, we would need to have law school faculty members with significant, real-world legal experience, not just those hired less than 5 years after receipt of the JD.

Posted by: Andy Patterson | May 25, 2012 9:35:21 AM


You should think about opening up some client schools, maybe.

"The first step is simply to embrace client needs as a measuring stick for curriculum decisions."

I'm pretty sure that we already do this, seeing as how every lawyer has some level of desire to be employed as a lawyer after graduation, and so the question of what courses and areas will be in demand in two or three years amongst The Clients is already a hot topic for most students. Predictions can be wrong, but believe me, client needs are embraced. Desperately.

"But we rarely ask directly, does this course/program/pedagogical method maximize the value we are providing to future clients? ..."

Again, the clients will judge us by their hiring decisions once we've chosen and taken our curriculum. The fact that their choices will award more hugs to people who have made well-considered and correct predictions about what the clients would be wanting us to know when we work for them is the most effective way possible to "maximize the value we are providing to future clients'"

"The second step is to bring clients into the curriculum."

Bus them in from arraignment court? Drag in some bankers and injured people? Insurance professionals at every lunch? Reps from each and every governmental agency between "B" and "La" on Thursdays? Bring in your uncle James with his property line dispute with his neighbor? 3M's CEO?

They're all clients. Just depends on what you end up doing, and, frankly, to spend significant time right now with groups and classes of clients for whom I'll never work would be a major waste of my time.

"Third, I would seek new models to add hands-on professional work to legal education."

Great! More unpaid internship hours! Lots more free hours of research showered on the beloved local firms! Fewer jobs for newby lawyers who want to be paid! (Oh, wait . . . )

"Fourth, I would rethink the teaching of every doctrinal course. ..."

Let's see . . . Con Law? Nope, everyone actually needs that one. Admin law? Can't function in society without it. Torts? Basic stuff that interacts with, and appears frequently in, most areas of practice. Property? Well, it's not just a real estate forms class . . . it's the complete law of possession . . . of anything . . . Criminal law? I suppose you could make that one an elective, but I still think every lawyer should know at least the basics. But those other doctrinal courses, the wasteful ones, we could just as well skip.

Posted by: bobby b | May 25, 2012 5:44:37 AM

What a crock. What students need is a shorter, faster, cheaper, law school. Something more like two years, and being part of, instead of after, undergraduate education. Bring back the LLB. Ms. Merritt has none.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | May 24, 2012 8:49:48 PM