It’s undeniable that the legal profession is in limbo. The recession forced the country’s largest law firms to cut corners and lay off hoards of new lawyers. And for aspiring attorneys currently working hard in law schools across the country, prospects for employment look grim while loan commitments continue to rise. To adapt to the changing market, a number of law schools have developed a new set of curricula designed to teach practical legal experience rather than rely on academic teachings that often don’t prepare lawyers for real world situations.
As the Wall Street Journal reports this week, law schools are taking innovative approaches to the traditional legal education. Indiana University Maurer School of Law, for example, has created a course titled “emotional intelligence” which requires no textbook and relies on personality assessments and peer reviews for instruction. In 2009, Washington and Lee University School of Law launched a total revamp of its third-year curriculum by “swapping out lectures and Socratic-style seminars for case-based simulations run by practicing lawyers.” And in only two years, New York Law School has hired 15 practicing lawyers as faculty members to teach practical skills like counseling and fact investigation.
But the reforms aren’t limited to lower ranked law schools. In fact, some of the country’s most elite institutions are leading the way when it comes to teaching real-world legal experience in a classroom setting. Harvard Law School, for example, has created a new “problem-solving” course for first-years and Stanford Law School has considered requiring a full-time course with 40 hours a week of clinical case work.
Law schools, like the legal profession itself, are steeped in tradition, and such substantial curriculum changes are likely to be met with ambivalence or even outright opposition. But following a slump during which record numbers of law school grads had trouble finding good jobs, it’s clear that law schools must make some changes to reflect the evolving market for legal careers. Only a quarter of law school grads landed jobs at big law firms last year, compared to a third of law school grads the year before.
This reflects a reluctance among big law firms to spend time and resources training new lawyers on practical matters, reports the Wall Street Journal. During the recession, for example, law firms stopped billing clients for hours that new lawyers spent getting familiar with their clients and their cases, a practice that was once routine. “This was a push from clients saying, ‘Why are we going to pay this kind of money? We don’t want to train the new lawyers,'” says head of recruiting for McKenna Long & Ladridge LLP Jennifer Queen.
This new direction for law school curricula reflects a growing acknowledgement that in order to succeed in economic downturns, new attorneys hoping to work at law firms after graduating will need to hit the ground running with real experience and practical skills. “Medical students learn from real doctors in a real hospital during their education,” said University of Illinois College of Law graduate BeiBei Que. “In law, we’re learning form a bunch of academics who have deliberately elected not to pursue law as a profession…there’s such a disconnect.”
Photo credit: David Ortez