The Future of Legal Education: Stop Resisting and Get Creati

by Vault Law Editors | March 02, 2011

  • My Vault

Can law students have it all: transparency, hands-on training and instruction that teaches them to think like lawyers? Legal professionals gathered to discuss these and other issues affecting legal education at Iowa Law Review’s recent symposium: The Future of Legal Education. The two-day symposium kicked off with a key-note speech by constitutional law scholar and dean of the recently-opened (2009) UC Irvine Law, Erwin Chemerinsky.

With the barrage of harsh critiques on law schools lately, now is a critical time to address legal education. But as Dean Chemerinsky pointed out at the symposium, law schools have been "remarkably resistant to change.” As a newcomer to the law-school club, UC Irvine has had an opportunity to implement a new style of legal education with more hands-on learning and interdisciplinary instruction. But according to Dean Chemerinsky, hands-on education calls for lower student-to-faculty ratios and ends up costing more money than the traditional lecture-hall classes. Plus, schools must get their faculty on-board with innovations, which isn't always easy—Richard A. Matasar, Dean of New York Law School, described the attitude as, "We're all old dogs trying to learn some new tricks, and all of us old dogs have got tenure and we're not going any place."

Dean Matasar also touched on the issue most in the spotlight recently—the allegation that law schools deceive prospective students with distorted employment statistics. Categorizing such deceit as a “myth,” the dean noted that law students understand the weight of their investments when they take out the loans and are familiar with the critiques on law school.

I think three words best summarize my thoughts: what a shame.

Law school administrators and professors should wake up—we have a problem here, folks. Your students and alumni are struggling to find employment and drowning in loans, and employers are complaining that recent grads aren't prepared for practice. If you’re too complacent to get up and do something about it, you’re failing at your jobs. I’m not saying you need to find the answer right away or solve the economic crisis which is obviously impacting the legal job market. But this is our reality, and it’s different from the reality of your days in law school— something has got to change.

Events like this symposium are great first steps toward changes to legal education, but law schools need to start stepping up. And since law schools are so resistant, I thought I’d help them out with these suggestions:

1.Get Transparent: Sure, law students understand the amount of debt they’re taking on and recently they’ve been hit with an avalanche of criticism of law schools. I’m a huge proponent of researching your law school investment before you dive in. But how can law students properly understand their investments if schools aren’t posting accurate employment and salary numbers? Take a hint from Washington & Lee Law and bare your numbers.

2.Brainstorm Ways to Get Hands-On: If the costs of more-personalized education are holding you back, think of alternative ways to integrate hands-on learning: (1) require students to complete a certain number of pro bono hours each year of law school, which will force students out into the legal world, (2) partner with legal organizations and require each student to work in a semester-long internship in return for school credit (students would work in the internship in place of one or two classes), or (3) implement a service week at your school during which all students will spend one week working with public service organizations and gaining practical legal experience. Get creative, and give your students real legal experience.

3.Do It All: Balance legal theory and interdisciplinary instruction with hands-on work. The traditional model of law school education doesn’t need to go down the drain. Professors can still beat students down with the Socratic method and teach legal theory. But with required service or internship programs, students can balance the more traditional classes with practical experiences.

4.Career Counseling: I know you’re there, career services, but students may not be thinking of you, and you’ve got to reach them. I’m not saying you should drag students into your office kicking and screaming, but I do think you should have “required” career counseling appointments. Rather than waiting for students to come to you, set up appointments with each student throughout each of his or her three years, and create career plans for them. Stay away from general advice and get down in the dirt, sifting through which specific internship and job opportunities would be best for that student, how he or she can apply to those jobs and which alumni and industry contacts the student should add to his or her network.

5.Have a Car Wash: It looks like so much fun and always raises the dough in the movies . . . OK, nevermind. But do get creative, and start thinking outside of the box in terms of budgeting, building funds outside of raising tuition, teaching your students and finding your students job opportunities.

I understand that law schools are businesses, but part of your business is to educate your students and counsel them in their careers. Not to mention, these students are the future of the legal industry, legal institutions and your alumni base. Work with them.

The Chronicle Source on The Future of Legal Education Symposium
Iowa Law Review - The Future of Legal Education Symposium
UC Irvine Law site
ATL Source regarding law school preparation for real practice

Read More:
Washington & Lee Law School Gets Even More Transparent
Law Students & Attorneys Are Angry . . . And They Should Be
Competition, Innovation, and Efficiency Mark the Future of the Legal Industry

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Filed Under: Law

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