It’s the End of the World as We Know It for law schools, according to pundits and “The New York Times.” The statistics are ominous. In March, the ABA released employment figures showing that within nine months of graduation, only 56.2% of 2012 law school graduates had a full-time job that required passing the bar exam. That is actually a 1.4% improvement over the 2011 figures. Combine those tough job prospects with the high cost of tuition, and it is no surprise that law school applications have declined 38% since 2010.
“Clear-eyed contemplation of the problems facing legal education can lead to the reforms necessary to resurrect it.”
However, according to law school deans participating in the Deans’ Panel at the 2nd Annual Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Conference, Connecting the Academy and the Profession, presented by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) on Oct. 4, clear-eyed contemplation of the problems facing legal education can lead to the reforms necessary to resurrect it.
IAALS is a national, independent research center at the University of Denver, dedicated to the improvement of the process and culture of the civil justice system. Among the IAALS initiatives is “Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers,” a program focused on encouraging innovation in legal education in order to train new lawyers to the highest standards of competence and professionalism. A consortium of 30 law schools, including some of the country’s most prestigious, partner with the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers initiative.
At the event, Dean Anthony Crowell of New York Law School, Dean Patricia White of the University of Miami School of Law, Dean Martin Katz of the Sturm college of Law at the University of Denver, Dean Marc Miller of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, and Dean Rachel Van Cleave of Golden Gate University School of Law, discussed the “Pedagogy and Business of Legal Education Reform.” Fortunately, the stodgy title and end-of-the-day time slot did not discourage exchanges between the panel members and the 50 or so educators and lawyers in the audience.
The Deans’ Panel examined the new models of instruction being undertaken at their schools. Dean Katz talked about the optional “Experiential Advantage Curriculum” now being offered at Denver Law, which provides students with a full year of practice-based programs, such as live client clinics, externships and legal simulation courses. Similarly, a one-year program for third-year students, built on the medical school model with three 10–week clinical rotations, is being offered at New York Law School for the 2013–14 school year. These “real life” experiences are seen as an essential tool in properly educating law students for law practice; however, the cost of clinical programs, which have much lower student–teacher ratios than larger lecture hall courses, must be accounted for. Some introductory lecture hall classes have student–faculty ratios of 63:1, while hybrid clinical models and simulation courses need to be maintained at approximately 15:1 or 20:1. The Deans’ Panel identified cost as an enormous issue, without an immediate or easy solution.
The dashed expectations of employment for students over the past three years was described as having a “silver lining” in terms of changes in the expectations of current law students. Law students now are being described as fully committed and engaged in their own education and their own future. Law school is no longer a place to hang out for three years while you decide on a career.
Questions from the audience hit on the tensions involved in changing traditional “Paper Chase” law school curricula by substituting up to a year of experiential learning programs. Will scholarship be tossed aside? Will there be issues between clinical professionals and traditional podium faculty? One questioner focused on law as a learned profession, and the need for law schools to train students to appreciate its deeply intellectual value. Another audience member responded that in the practicing world, lawyers don’t talk about law review articles and don’t use casebooks —that typical law school scholarship was largely irrelevant to the actual practice of law. The retort followed that, if that is so, why do the schools that focus the most on scholarly endeavors get the highest rankings; why do the most prestigious firms always look for law journal experience from their hires, as a measure of their intellectual strength? The panelists responded that legal study cannot be an either/or proposition; that to succeed now, law schools must develop elements of both. Scholarship continues to play an important role, but more and more law schools and faculty are also focusing on the training needed for professional success.
By Barbara Mueller