April 14, 2010
NYLS and Harvard Sponsor Conference on the Future of Law Schools: Some Thoughts
There are a number of stories in the press lately about the place of law schools in society, some driven by reports on the law school conference held last week at New York Law School, co-sponsored with Harvard, called Future Ed: New Business Models for U.S. and Global Legal Education. The major theme, at least as reported in the National Law Journal, revolved around the disconnect between a law school education and the practical skills a newly minted lawyer needs to serve their client's needs and make their way through the court system. It's one thing to know the legal requirements for a will to be valid. It's another thing to write a document that will withstand a challenge in probate court.
Some of this dovetailed off into the usual discussion that newly-hired associates are not capable of handling a firm's business. It's sort of the bar review in reverse: students take law school classes for three or four years as a prerequisite to bar review which teaches them how to take the bar exam. Once past that hurdle, associates spend nearly as much time apprenticing at a firm before being let loose with a client's matters. The academic librarians are aware of this from anecdotal comments from their firm counterparts, that new hires don't have a clue on efficient research techniques. It's one thing to research in an academic environment where time is not of the essence, and another to bring an awareness and skill set to an environment where time is literally money. And not just that, but a lot of money.
One of the fears I have with WestlawNext, for all of its shiny goodness at organization, helpful tracking and storage features and thesaurus is that students will be fooled by the Google-like interface into believing that the machine will produce the answer with little effort. One thing I see in a lot of electronic training is the emphasis on technique and awareness of database features and hardly any on analysis of the actual legal problem at hand in the results, except to show that they are related in one form or another to the search. It's as if we expect the students to make that obvious connection on their own based on their substantive legal training. I'm not sure they always make that jump. If WestlawNext (or Lexis) hands me 106 cases, it still hurts my head to scan 106 cases for the answer or a synthesis thereof.
Getting past that side note, the basic idea is to get law schools to take on the cost of bridging the gap between an understanding of the law and the implementation of it as a business practice. The law firms understand the economics of on the job training and are starting to reject it, what with deferred hirings and layoffs. Just recently Mayer Brown tersely announced a third round of layoffs with 28 associates and 47 staff let go. Times may change as the economy improves, but the likelihood of firms wanting to assume the costs of training law graduates to be lawyers will be smaller after the current experience.
So what to do? NYLS Law Dean Richard Matasar wants the conference, one of a series of events to designed to attack the problem, to start a dialog that will produce concrete solutions. Good luck with that. Students take 90 hours of classes before they can qualify for the bar examination. Imagine adding time to that, or forcing faculty to teach a practice component. There is the difference between teaching the lofty ideals of the legal profession compared to the trade practices of the law business. The legal academy simply doesn't operate that way, even with law clinics and trial advocacy classes as part of the mix. I've worked at law schools where practitioners on the faculty were at war with the theorists over what should be taught in the curriculum. It's an unpleasant experience for everyone.
The X-factor in all of this is the viability of a law career compared to the costs of law school. There is a point where potential law students will accurately assess their chances of landing a job out of law school that will actually cover their ability to pay for it. If law school applications start to drop, and that doesn't seem to be the case for now, that may motivate schools to reform where they compete on a combination of skills training and placement. Maybe the economic upheaval in the law trade (yes, I'm calling it that) may force the change in professional training. It may not be ideals that killed the beast, it may be the need for a paycheck. [MG]
I would just like to post a correction. The program was sponsored by New York Law School and Harvard, not New York University Law School and Harvard. Dean Matasar is the Dean at NYLS.
I also would add that in addition to having a bar exam that reflects competence to practice law, I think that there should be certificate exams to specialize in particular fields. The knowledge needed to litigate a securities fraud action is quite different than handling the myriad of problems facing an elder law attorney. Finally, the ABA is pushing outcome measures. This is an opportunity for the ABA to identify common skills for lawyers and force the issue to the fore. The problem needs to be commonly solved by both sides of the profession.
I hope you will all join us for the panel discussion at AALL this summer.
[Corrections have been made. I don't understand why I have a problem in confusing the names of these schools. I apologize for the confusion. MG]
Posted by: Vicki Szymczak | Apr 18, 2010 7:55:32 AM
Something is missing from the entire discussion, which is that Bench and Bar have at least some complicity in perpetuating this unacceptable system by having a requirement for entrance to the bar, i.e. the bar exam, which has little more to do with the practice of law than does a 4th-grade reading-comprehension test. To some extent law schools teach to the bar exam; since the teaching required to prepare students for the bar exam is not the same as the teaching required to prepare students to practice law, there is a disconnect.
Posted by: Scott DeLeve | Apr 15, 2010 10:19:02 AM
I am a coordinator of a program at AALL discussing the subject of legal education and possibilities for the future. Its called Mile High Summit on Training: Are Things Coming to a Peak? Its a 75 minute panel discussion on Sunday, July 11 at 1:30 pm and includes as speakers Professor David Thomson, Director of the Lawyering Program at Sturm College of Law in Denver (who authored Law School 2.0 Legal Education for a Digital Age); Molly Peckman who is Director of Professional Development at Dechert, Tommy Preston who is a student at University of South Carolina and also is the Student Representative on the ABA Board of Governors-Elect, University of South Carolina, and Linda-Jean Schneider who is the Director of Libraries & Research Services at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. Our moderator if Victoria Szymczak who is Library Director & Assistant Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.
We have a terrific panel and I think its going to be a very worthwhile discussion.
Caren J. Biberman
Director of Library & Information Services
Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP
Posted by: Caren Biberman | Apr 15, 2010 6:26:52 AM