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September 7, 2011 6:19 PM

Fixing Law School

Posted by Aric Press

It's been another dreadful year for the public image of law schools. Applications are down, but tuition is up. The false reporting of employment statistics by schools—the same institutions charged with teaching ethics to our prospective lawyers—is so rampant that both U.S. News and the American Bar Association have intervened to find more reliable reporting.

Frustrated, unemployed, debt-laden recent graduates have taken to flaming the Net. The New York Times and our blogging colleague Steven J. Harper have called out prominent education reformers for one of the rankest of academic sins—hypocrisy—at their institutions. And the ABA House of Delegates has roused itself to "urge" the law schools that it accredits to "implement" programs to "develop practice-ready lawyers."

The ABA is on the right track, and I recommend the fine memo supporting the delegates' resolution for a summary of the current situation. But urging won't be enough.

A few things are about to happen. First, much of the academy will ignore these blandishments. Some will speak up defensively, arguing that law schools have never done a better job of preparing lawyers for practice. I think that's true, but it also redefines the concept of faint praise. Then, we're going to hear, again, that law schools aren't vocational schools. Neither are medical schools, yet the members of that learned profession graduate prepared to stanch bleeding. Law graduates? Not so much. Finally, for all the fury, nothing will change. Absent an intervention, who will act?

• Not the universities. Law schools are profit centers, paying overhead and subsidizing programs far from the world of the 1Ls.

• Not the professors. The faculty is more academically distinguished than ever, but for all their brilliance the professors are not well suited to—or terribly interested in­—developing "practice-ready" lawyers. This has left waves of 24-year-olds to mortgage their futures in the name of supporting an increasingly rarefied faculty. And few professors bother to say thank you.

• Not the employers. For them, the admissions office performs the most important on-campus task by screening for smarts and, on occasion, sparkle. To hear them talk, hiring partners pay little attention to the course work; firms brag that they are postgraduate training centers for their new recruits.

• Not the students. If they want to be lawyers, they must buy into the system. Few have any bargaining power. They are nonrepeat customers who arrive hoping to become "practice-ready" and leave still hoping.

Only two players remain with the power and motivation to force some change upon the schools: the client community and the organized bar. It is notable to me that when a corporate chief legal officer is rushed to an emergency room with chest pains, his first words upon confronting a young doctor aren't "If you're a first-year resident, get away from my gurney!" He and the world assume that the medical professional in the ER has been prepared for this moment. Yet clients believe that they can't find similarly adroit help from first-year lawyers. Some shrug, others bar them from their matters.A coalition from corporate America making demands on law school deans might not be so easily ignored.

And then there's the organized bar. The ABA has the power to accredit, and with that comes the power to insist. As part of the accreditation process, the ABA could, for example, add to its minimum requirements a list of ten core competencies for every law school graduate to master in order to be deemed practice-ready. These would run the gamut from, say, drafting a complaint to negotiating a memorandum of understanding—much as every graduating doctor knows how to suture a wound or confront an X-ray. This would have to be done quickly and then enforced aggressively (and yes, I know that lawyers, like doctors, need more than basic skills for their ever-narrowing practices).

The ABA need not stop there. Perversely, I think, the current accreditation standards have led to the creation of mini Harvards and Yales throughout the land. What we need is the freedom to experiment. A system that ended the six-semester tyranny and approved different regimens for different goals—two-year programs for the practice-ready; three for the lovers of Langdell; four for those determined to practice tax law—would unshackle the markets for students and faculty. Of course, this will take more than urging. But what a glorious cause for the ABA to embrace.

Press, ALM's editor in chief, can be reached at apress@alm.com.



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Aric,

So we will get "practice ready" lawyers through ABA command and control regulation?

Isn't the real issue that there is no market for three years & $120K done well versus three years & $120K done poorly? When the spoils are all handled based on letters of admission, there is simply no incentive to innovate.

At the bottom of this upside down world is a spiritual malaise -- a disbelief, by many lawyers, judges and law professors, that education can't be transformative. This is a deeply misguided and wasteful worldview.

Here is a thought experiment worth considering: fill a law school with highly motivated young people, trading down a bit on test scores to find students with passion and grit; divert all the resources of a law school to instructors who are only interested in helping those young people become better, more effective problem solvers ("practice ready plus"); let the instructors and students work together for three years.

Would the labor market really ignore this output? As a lawyer said to me last week, "work always finds talent." It is worth finding out whether a professional school can create such talent. To my mind, this is the next frontier.

I will be the one to say it again. Law schools are not vocational trade colleges. Clients refuse to allow first-year lawyers on their bills because they do not want to pay $300/hr+ for work that could be done by an ethical high-school student, or outsourced to a piece-work contract attorney. It has nothing to do with a judgment about "practice-worthiness." AmLaw firms train new lawyers to conduct business in the manner of the firm. Law schools should not sacrifice the teaching of law to instead instruct in the business practices of a subset of prospective employers. I believe that the best way to become "practice ready" is to learn jurisprudence. Once you have theory down, application is a matter of common sense and experience. This was also true in my prior career (engineering). There, as in law, the most talented practitioners were the ones who understood the idea underlying the practice.

I would have worked my tail off to go to a law school like Bill Henderson describes.

I hope that schools, students, practitioners, clients, can become innovative and create new ways of practicing law that serve the rest of America - the people - not just corporations.

The law school at which I teach -- Loyola Los Angeles -- is well on its way to becoming the school Bill Henderson describes. We have organized into practice areas. Each practice area committee is charged with developing and administering a curriculum designed to produce practice-ready lawyers. In the civil litigation area, for example, we now offer a full course on taking and defending depositions and another full course on cross-examination. In tax, we offer a joint JD/Tax LLM program that allows students to get the intensive specialized training they need to be top-tier tax lawyers from the get-go -- all within the standard three JD years. Each committee meets with practitioners in its area to match curriculum to needs. The goal is that every student will graduate with the skills he or she will need within the first two or three years of practice.

Whether employers will hire preferentially out of such a school, or will continue to look solely at US News rank, remains an open question.

I find it hard to believe that these problems only exist in law schools. I think that most college graduates, and even graduate school grads are having a very tough time finding any type of work, let alone a job with the salary they may be expecting.

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