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April 11, 2010 7:16 PM

And Now for Something Completely Different: The Future of Legal Education

Posted by Irene Plagianos

Room 402 at New York Law School is usually reserved for lectures about civil procedure. On Friday afternoon, though, dean Richard Matasar introduced a different discussion topic to the crowded classroom: the need to change U.S. legal education--and to do it now.

“We're here to put action into place,” Matasar said to an audience of about 75 law school deans, legal educators, and lawyers. With more and more graduating students carrying hefty loan debts into a job market offering fewer options, Matasar told those who educate future lawyers that the time has come “to make our education more valuable...make our education more responsive” and go beyond “modest initiatives.”

Matasar's pep talk kicked off a two-day conference called "Future Ed: New Business Models for U.S. and Global Legal Education”--the first event in what organizers call a yearlong “contest of ideas” sponsored by New York Law School and its somewhat unlikely partner Harvard Law School.

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.

During a session dubbed “Apocalypse Now?” Paul Lippe, chief executive officer of Legal OnRamp (and a regular contributor to The Am Law Daily), said, “law school is directionally wrong” and “misaligned with where the world really is.” Like many panelists, LIppe called on law schools to do more to teach the practical skills clients want.

Chester Paul Beach, associate general counsel of United Technologies Corporation, 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.”

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.

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.

It wasn't all law school bashing. Morrison & Foerster's managing partner Keith Wetmore pointed out that the current approach to legal education in this country does foster creative thinking. Switching to a heavy focus on skills, Wetmore said, will “take away thoughts untethered to the particular needs of a client on a particular day.”

Panelists also discussed alternative law school models that might be worth exploring: accelerated programs, experiential learning, and distance learning. The consensus among conference attendees appeared to be that there should be “multiple futures” to legal education. Every school can't be Harvard, and every school shouldn't follow the same system, said Joseph Altonji, from consulting firm Hildebrant Baker Robbins. Schools should specialize, he said, “because we need different kinds of practitioners."

“We need less associates, but firms need to keep them longer," Altonji said, adding that a model based purely on grades and LSATs for all graduating law students embarking into various careers “is just not working today."

The conference's second day found participants and panelists breaking off into small groups to begin crafting proposals to put some of the concepts being discussed--infusing more skill training into the classroom via collaborative efforts with practicing lawyers, for example--into action. The teams are set to meet again in October at Harvard and then reconvene at NYLS in April 2011.

At one point during the weekend, Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Bill Henderson noted that lawyers and law professors are "allergic to risks." Still, the crowd seemed energized by the prospect of bringing change to the world of legal education. How that energy translates into action will become clearer by next spring.

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Add this to your "contest of ideas":

(1) Let's shut down 10-20 law school diploma mills; and (2) let's stop outsourcing America's legal work to India.

Thank you Keith Wetmore for injecting a note of sanity into the discussion. Giving students more practical skills is a good idea but going too far in that direction is not. Lawyers are not plumbers (no offense to plumbers). The best lawyers are those with a combination of intellectual, creative and practical skills. Let's not forget that.

"And Now For Something Completely Different - Redux: A similar meeting will be held later this month at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
This conference will, however, use a unique participatory process used by Arizona Town Hall, which completely eliminates "talking heads" to identify areas of consensus among the participants in order to move forward."

If you think law school reform is important, you should look at the innovative programs at schools like my alma mater - Washington & Lee. Third year students are required to participate in programs that teach them how to practice law in the real world, including strategic thinking, values, project management and how to communicate with clients and peers.

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