Thursday, May 24, 2012

Deborah Jones Merritt on Client-Centered Law Schools

Deborah Jones Merritt argues that law school curriculum decisions should be client-centered in a post at Inside the Law School Scam.  She makes four suggestions for reform.  She states, "The first step is simply to embrace client needs as a measuring stick for curriculum decisions. . . .   If we candidly examined the law school curriculum from that perspective, we might scratch our heads at many of the things we do. Equally important, we might be forced to admit that we don't have a clue what clients want or which pedagogies address those needs--and we might be forced to find out."

Next, she declares, "The second step is to bring clients into the curriculum. . . .  I would add a client-contact course to the first year of law school, even if one of the traditional doctrinal courses has to move to the second year. This course, like the ones taught in medical schools, would allow students first to practice client interactions with individuals assuming client roles."

"Third, I would seek new models to add hands-on professional work to legal education. . . .  I can imagine smaller initiatives involving partnerships between law schools and particular employers. While pursuing these ideas, I would also modestly expand our in-house clinical offerings. The in-house clinics are valuable because of the intense supervision and opportunities for reflection that students receive."

"Fourth, I would rethink the teaching of every doctrinal course. . . .  And even in the first year, where learning to read cases and statutes should remain a primary focus, there are ways to make the curriculum more client centered. One of my very creative colleagues begins his fall-semester legal writing course by asking his 1L students to read a 37-page stock purchase agreement to determine whether the purchaser has certain rights against the seller. . . .  This exercise occurs in a legal writing class (and, yes, in the very first week of law school), but it could have been assigned in courses on contracts, mergers, or environmental law (the contractual dispute relates to the costs of hazardous waste remediation). Why do we assign so many cases in law school and so few documents of other kinds?"

Her other suggestions include: "(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."

She concludes, "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."

I agree with Professor Merritt that we should be more client-centered.  The main purpose of law schools is to turn out lawyers that can serve society, and even state bars are beginning to realize that we aren't.  I like her emphasis on reforming the first year, but I do not agree that law students should have client contact during the first year; they just aren't ready yet.  Rather, they should apply their knowledge to analyzing documents (as she suggests) and to using exercises to apply the law to the facts (as I have suggested here several times).

Finally, Merritt is correct that we will have to make changes to pay for the reforms.  While this may require sacrifices for professors, law schools should exist for students and society and the Langdellian Bargain must end.  

(Scott Fruehwald)

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