Changing Legal Education: The Need to Get Real

♫ I’m scared to touch
Too tense to be undone
I walk the streets
Not expecting morning sun
Against the voice of doom
Failures fall all over town

I guess I should
I feel I should
Get real Get real…♫

Lyrics and Music by David Bowie and Brian Eno.

Irene Plagianos, for The American Lawyer and posted on today, wrote an article entitled: The Future of Legal Education: Get Real.

She reported on how Dean Richard Matasar of the New York Law School (partnered with Harvard Law School) introduced a different discussion topic to a crowded classroom composed of 75 law school deans, legal educators and lawyers: the need to change U.S. legal education — and to do it now. This was part of a two-day conference entitled: “Future Ed: New Business Models for U.S. and Global Legal Education”

Seems there is a growing sense that all is perhaps not right with the current state of legal education:

New York Law professor and program organizer Elizabeth Chambliss says several factors helped spark the initiative: deep cuts in associate hiring, recession-driven changes to the broader legal market and the Carnegie Foundation’s highly critical 2007 report on how law schools are failing to teach students practical skills. A total of more than 20 speakers at Friday’s panels offered what were often harsh assessments on the ways in which law schools are falling short — and what they could do to turn out better, more prepared students.

Some of the reported comments are quite critical of law schools:

Chester Paul Beach, associate general counsel of United Technologies Corp., hammered home the need for more real-world training. To cut down on legal costs, Beach said, his company absolutely will not pay for first- or second-year associates because “they’re worthless.” Lawyers need more “skill development” in school because, especially amid the current economic downturn, businesses are “not going to pay for people who can’t add value.”

There is recognition of the sense of what is wrong:

The divide between legal education and legal practice emerged as the central problem that needs to be tackled. As Vielka Holness, director of the Pre-Law Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice said, the problem is that “we’re teaching all our students as if they want to be professors” — not the route the vast majority of those students wind up pursuing.

Where could law schools improve?

Perhaps to inject a greater sense of urgency, Beach added, “We’re actively trying to destroy the current model.” Among other failings, he said, law school doesn’t teach lawyers such practical business management skills as financial literacy and effective executive communication.

Financial literacy? Effective communication? Lawyers in the trenches, in candid conversations, have bemoaned the lack of practical training in law schools for some time. For too long, law schools have been afraid to touch these issues – afraid that the way that they do things may need to be undone. In walking the streets today I was not expecting the morning sun against the voice of doom. Personally, I am overjoyed that law schools, finally, feel the need to get real…


  1. Francis Barragan

    Having graduated not too long ago, I think there is indeed a tremendous difference as some have mentioned between lawyers coming out of school and people that have been working for a while, at least in my neck of the woods.

    I see that other professionals just coming out of school with degrees seem to be highly sought after (in the bio research fields for instance) and there seems to be a “buzz” around them, employers wanting to benefit from their knowledge, to know “what’s new” in their field and what not.

    My limited experience in the legal world has been that when you come out, employers really have to form you from the bottom up, so pretty extensively. Hence, there’s little interest for a lot of new graduates – except those that are in certain categories. It can be a real fight to acquire these first few years of experience.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but it certainly felt (and still feels) like that to me. I don’t really know what the solution is, unfortunately.

  2. I have told anyone who would listen my concerns regarding legal education for years now. I graduated from law school less than a decade ago so I can remember vividly how woefully unprepared I was to start articling. Students leave law school knowing what consideration is, what the test is in a particular area of law, etc. But they know NOTHING about how to file documents in court, using forms and precedents, how to address clients, writing for business (considering in law school all students do is write essays, this is no surprise), how to provide advice to clients, how to organize, etc. They don’t even know how to conduct legal research, yet that is what they do as an articling student most of the time! I agree that law schools are not preparing people for practice, they are teaching as if people will go on to further education, and for most people that is not the case.

    Something has to change. Law firms and clients are not going to be able to train lawyers from the ground up. One of the reasons there are fewer and fewer articling positions available in Canada is that firms just cannot afford to hire a student and train them for a year. And with legal outsourcing starting to really take off in Canada, the duties that articling students are (currently) normally assigned will be sent off to India to be done cheaper and faster. They will need to leave school better prepared with more practical skills – if not, they will be left behind and the legal outsourcing companies in India will be, in effect, the new articling students.

    Legal education will have to change – no doubt about it.

  3. There have been complaints about legal education for as long as I have been involved with it; now almost exactly 50 years. I have sat on many curriculum committees to reform one or more law school years and none have done more than tinker. There’s more than a little of a hazing ritual in what law students, particularly first year students, are forced to undergo.

    First, law schools should not have to teach a student how to file something in court. He or she can learn that from one visit to the court during articles. The other points made by Ms. Connor are more valid.

    As I have frequently stated on Slaw, the principal problem I see is that law schools focus excessively on appellate litigation and not enough on the work of solicitors, i.e., the work that the bulk of the profession will perform.

    The difficulty that law schools (or anyone trying to teach someone about law) faces is that there are no simple problems that a student can practise on. Drafting a letter or an agreement or advising a client on any matter requires one to have a very broad knowledge of the law, far broader in fact than is required to be a successful advocate. I do not mean to deprecate either the work that advocates do or the knowledge and skill that they have to have; I mean only that dealing with an actual dispute is often a more focused or bounded exercise than giving advice to keep a client out of trouble. It’s part of the problem of legal education that students only ever get a problem that is “labelled” because it arises in a particular course. Clients seldom tell their lawyers the juridical nature of their problems.

    When I went to law school, law schools had just fought a battle to establish law as an academic subject, outside the direct control of the profession. Over the last half of the twentieth century, the concept of law as a fit subject for a university became well established. Towards the end of that time, however, it became fashionable to view “doctrinal” law as unworthy of a university education and, instead, to require that law be taught as “law and …”, with economics, philosophy, sociology, etc., being necessary to make law relevant and intellectually respectable. I have always considered this development as misguided and unfortunate and make no apologies for focusing my writing and my scholarship on doctrine. I do not deny that law can be illuminated by other disciplines; it has, however, its own academic integrity.

    The fact is that the study of law is not the same as a study of economics, philosophy or sociology; it should ultimately be designed for and focused on giving students what they need to know in order to give good advice to and effective representation of their (future) clients. I make the tendentious claim that this is all that law schools should do. I think that this goal can be more easily achieved and the curriculum offerings enriched if law schools focused more on the work that solicitors do.

    I do not know just how law schools can be the institutions that I think they should become. I am certain that no concept or model will be perfect and that disputes will always swirl around any particular model. I know that the current model doesn’t work very well. The saving grace for the profession and for students is that they are all so very bright.