Law Schools Could Take a Hint From Medical Schools on Curriculum Reform

The following was supplied by Sarah E. Ricks, Clinical Professor and Co-Director, Pro Bono Research Project, Rutgers School of Law – Camden:

By Katherine Mangan

The nation’s legal-education system needs a major overhaul so that students graduating with more than $100,000 in debt can find jobs in a shrinking market and graduate ready to practice. That was the consensus of most of the nearly 100 judges and law-firm partners who converged at a forum this week sponsored by Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Participants in the “National Forum on the Future of Legal Education” said law schools should emulate medical schools and transform the third year into clinical rotations, so that students know the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer by the time they graduate. Such changes are needed, they said, at a time when law firms are hiring fewer lawyers, and clients are less willing to pay for young associates to gain on-the-job training with their cases.

Many of those who shared ideas at the forum were adjunct law professors or lawyers who had previously taught law. But they were dispensing advice as law-firm partners and judges who hire and work with young lawyers, who they said often lack the analytical and writing skills they need to be effective their first year out of school.

“What law firms do is train junior lawyers, and they are basically unprofitable in their first or second years,” said Andrew A. Giaccia, an executive partner with Chadbourne & Parke LLP, a global corporate law firm.

At some firms, 50 percent or more of these junior lawyers leave during their first two years, he added. “When they’re gone, that training investment is gone,” Mr. Giaccia said. “It’s not an economic model that makes sense.”

He argued for shaving one year off the three-year J.D. to allow students to complete their basic course work in two years—more like an M.B.A. After that, schools could create personalized tracks to provide additional training based on students’ career choices. A student planning to go into solo practice, for instance, could spend an extra year getting advanced training in that.

Variations of that theme received wide support as participants debated and then voted on their favorite solutions to the training problem.

Paul Schiff Berman, law dean at Arizona State University, said his staff will summarize the findings and recommendations and distribute them to law schools nationwide. He also hopes to incorporate many of the recommendations into his school’s curriculum, which already includes a required course on bridging the gap from law school to practice and 11 litigation and non-litigation clinics.

Theresa H. Vella, a Phoenix-based partner with a major corporate law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, suggested a third year of rotations in which students might spend a month each in a large firm, a solo practice, a government office, and a nonprofit group.

Another proposal would allow students to receive a provisional license after two years of law school. After that, they would go to work for a firm that might pay them $40,000 instead of $160,000, but in exchange, they would receive training and mentoring.

Curricula Need Revamping

Participants at the forum also noted that law-school curricula are heavily skewed toward litigation. But with fewer cases going to trial today, in part because litigation is so expensive, students need more experience in practicing transactional law, drafting documents, and negotiating terms with clients, several participants said. During their third year, students should also learn practical skills like how to open a law office, advertise, and get clients, several participants said.

“Lawyers come out of law school eager and smart and knowing absolutely nothing useful,” said J. William Dantzler Jr., the head of global tax practice for the firm White & Case LLP. “I came here with a vague sense that doing away with the third year might be useful, but being a lawyer, I want to hear both sides.” During his own third year of law school, he said, “I mostly drank beer and enjoyed myself immensely.”

Roger A. Denning, a national recruiter for the law firm of Fish & Richardson, in San Diego, said the third year should be revamped so that students paying as much as $45,000 a year in tuition and fees are practicing skills they will actually be using when they graduate.

Fewer than a quarter of graduating law students go to work for firms with more than 100 lawyers, and about 56 percent work in private practice, according to NALP: The Association for Legal Career Professionals. The rest find jobs in government, public service, business, or other sectors.

“It used to be that graduates would go into big law firms, make a lot of money, and pay off their loans, but that’s not the case anymore,” Mr. Denning said. “I worry when people ask, ‘Am I really going to take on $150,000 in debt to go into a profession that’s not hiring the way it was?’ Some of the best and brightest might just say, ‘No thanks.’ ”

His firm, one of the top patent-law firms in the country, pays first-year associates $160,000 a year, ,, but it only plans to hire a third as many new associates this fall as it did two years ago.

Practical Experience Crucial

Another speaker at the forum said that some of the training law students need can come from mentors.

Patrick J. Schiltz, a U.S. District Court judge in Minnesota, taught law at the University of Notre Dame and the University of St. Thomas before his appointment to the federal bench in 2006. At St. Thomas, where he also served as an associate dean, he helped set up a program in which all students are required to have a mentor for all three years. Students shadow lawyers during witness depositions, court hearings, and alternative dispute resolutions.

Mr. Schiltz said most law professors nationwide graduated from a few top schools and have little practice experience.

“The faculty can’t teach these skills because they don’t know how,” he said. “They’ve never had a client, and they aren’t interested. Teaching students (these skills) doesn’t enhance their prestige or help their schools climb in the rankings.”

He added that the nation has no shortage of disadvantaged people needing legal help, but most debt-burdened law-school graduates can’t afford to take the public-interest jobs that would help these individuals… As a result, “there’s a tsunami of lawyers, and people are dying of thirst.”

Michael P. McCuskey, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, said most law-school graduates in his state go to work in solo or small practices. “With the economic downturn, more and more law students are compelled economically to put out their own shingle,” he said. In addition to mentoring, “they need training in ethics and professionalism in the third year, because many will start out viewing their job as a business that is paying off their debts.”

The American Bar Association’s accrediting arm is considering changes to its accreditation standards that would address such concerns. One of the more controversial proposals being considered would require schools to measure how well their graduates had mastered specified skills.

Some deans worry about the added financial burden such a requirement might entail during tough economic times.

Also: Chris Coughlin, Sandy Patrick, and Lisa McElroy just published an article on this topic in 26 Georgia State Law Review 361 (2010).

5 Responses

  1. […] } Attention is invited to blog post: Law Schools Could Take a Hint From Medical Schools on Curriculum Reform in  It is interesting to note the following theme […]

  2. Great, if not long overdue, ideas. I came into law school knowing that I was going to work in public interest. I never even hoped to work in a giant firm so the fact that the law school model still expects that I will get training in a firm does me a disservice. We should be turning out students who are prepared from a variety of career settings instead of continuing to cater to an outdated protocol.

  3. From Professor Michael Bryce:

    A review of the Flexner report in 1910 would suggest that Flexner recognized that one should not automatically highlight analytical reasoning over clinical evaluation, simply because one is on its face more exactinig than the other. Instead, both must be seen as contributing to research and the well-being of the patient. That is why Flexner suggested that the first two years concentrate on knowledge and analytical reasoning and the last two years involve experiential (clinical) learning. However, Flexner wasn’t the best educational thinker. He drove osteopathy out of business during the teens and twenties through his report. (Osteopaths believed in a more human oriented approach to medicine). Nevertheless, Flexner realized you couldn’t learn how to practice medicine simply through analytical reasoning and that students needed additional education/training in medical school. Legal Educators have only begrudgingly concluded this in recent years. Even then, many Law Deans do not want to incorporate too much experiential learning, just good window dressing.

    A related article against having experiential learning in legal education was written by Dean Costonis. That article however fails to square with the Carnegie Report of 1921 or 1928, the views of the Realists in the 30’s, the OEO support for clinics in the 60’s, the Carrington Report of 1971, the Carnegie Report of 1972, the Cramton Report of 1979, the MacCrate Report of 1992, the Best Practices Report of 2007 and the Carnegie Report of 2007.

    It would seem that analytical reasoning might have lead law professors and law schools to at least consider and possibly implement some of their own blue ribbon expert reports. If that had occurred initially, law professors may have moved forward in the 20’s with something akin to experiential learning, as the medical schools had done. Instead, the “one professor to 100 students” classroom seemed a controlling factor for continuing Langdell’s flawed view of learning (he believed that having any practitioners be involved with legal education would contaminate it).

    Unfortunately, the monetary largesse accruing to law schools through the years instead went to other Graduate Schools within the University. This resulted in Graduate Schools, including Medical Schools, having externsive and expensive mentoring programs for their students. Law Schools never had any such programs and still don’t. This is something to consider in light of Dean Kronman’s writings!

    So, the real difference between medical school education and law school education may not be so nuanced as suggested. Medical schools spent money on experiential education beginning in 1910 and law schools did not.

    The whole scenario of legal education after 1870 actually seems somewhat like most men when they are driving and get lost. Most simply will not admit they are lost and more poignantly will not stop for directions or a map, even though doing so would help. Instead, they keep on driving in the same direction, frequently becoming more and more lost.

    Hopefully, the two recent reports on legal education in 2007 will finally get our 1870 “Marcus style” auto-mo-bile heading in the right direction.

  4. I’m all in favor of expanding experiential education in law school–I’m a traditional “podium” professor and scholar who has made good on that commitment by teaching legal writing and a traditional criminal defense clinic. But law practitioners have to get over the idea that law grads should be “profitable” during their first few years after graduation. Medical school grads, despite two years of clinical rotations, are not “profitable” during their multiple-year residencies. They are paid–as new lawyers should be paid–but they don’t generate profits for senior doctors.

    I find both the legal academy and practitioners greatly at fault in training new lawyers. While the academy has gone off on its woolly way, it has at least developed pedagogies for training new lawyers. Many practitioners seem to have completely forgotten any obligation to continue that training with junior lawyers. Instead, firms have this notion that senior lawyers are entitled to make money off junior lawyers. Why? Clients are the big losers here. I’d like to see both the academy and practice recommit to educational techniques that are best for *clients*

  5. ” they don’t generate profits for senior doctors.”

    While they dont directly generate profits for the senior doctors they DO allow the senior doctors to have MUCH more free time to directly generate profits for themselves. I would know.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: