Blowing up the Box – starting a conversation about re-engineering the law school educational model

December 30th, 2011 by Susan Hackett

In the legal world, times are changing, clients are looking for alternatives to traditional lawyering, and professional service markets are evolving in ways that are unfamiliar and even scary to many of us: lawyers must think about what such change means to their practices, and how they will adapt and thrive in new circumstances.

 

How and where do we begin to assess what change requires?  There are many options, but I think it’s fair to begin the conversation at the beginning: with law school education and the lawyer accreditation process.

 

I’d like get the conversation started by suggesting some thinking that may, for some, be radically outside the box.  As noted in the title, what I’m actually proposing for conversational purposes is that we blow up the box that we understand, and start with a clean slate to think about what it is that we would like law school education to be, unfettered by what we think we think we are limited to.

 

I’d like to engage in this discussion not by criticizing what I don’t like in the current law school model, but by articulating what I’d like to see in a new model.  I understand that whatever is suggested in theory at some point has to be developed in practice to fit within the context of the current system.  And this would seem all but impossible from our current vantage.  But for now, just to get us started, imagine that there are “no rules, just right,” and that you are interested in joining me in building “NewNormal Law School.”

 

The features of my NewNormal Law School would include:

 

STAGE ONE:

A 3- or 4-year curriculum, with the Stage One (either just the first, or first and second year, if we are convinced that there is a need) spent in classrooms with law professors teaching “legal concepts” such as Constitutional Law, Torts, Procedure, Property Law, Employment Law, etc.  While the teaching style might remain Socratic, the materials at NewNormal law school feature more than “reading case law”: with more focus on how the concepts play out in real life / how they are applied in practice.   Perhaps you might think of it as case studies, rather than case law.

 

STAGE 2:

Stage 2 of the curriculum (either second or third year, depending on whether we do 1 or 2 years in the classroom) features a year of Executive Education (like that found in MBA programs in business schools), styled to give practical application to Stage 1 concepts.  The few classes offered to supplement the executive-styled problem-solving process would be in what might be termed “business skills for lawyers”: project and process management, legal technologies and how to deploy them, financial valuation, accounting basics, behavioral management, how to bill and evaluate services, how to communicate and assess client needs, ethics and professionalism in practice, etc.   Some classes could be offered in conjunction with the university’s business school or other masters level programs.

 

As an example of how the executive education process might work: The class might be divided into teams of 5-10 students, with each team given a carefully planned and detailed scenario to work with their team to “solve” over the course of 8 or so weeks.  Teams would be re-constituted with new players for a second and then again for a third scenario – offering three different simulations for each student, working with three different teams of fellow students over the course of the year.  The scenarios might offer exposure to different kinds of practice environments: in one, the team members might be the lawyers, paralegals and administrators in a small law firm with a particular kind of practice portfolio and clients – individual clients or corporate clients.  Their assignment, handed out in increments which build over the 8 weeks, might require them to act like a firm to solve evolving client problems, conduct the business of the firm (billing and administering the firm as an entity), and force them to navigate through several challenges that are presented as the simulation unfolds.

 

Other scenarios might put teams to work in a government regulatory, non-profit or public interest work environment, or as in-house lawyers and executive members of a global company expanding their business into a non-US jurisdiction.  Each team would be assigned a faculty supervisor who is both the coach and evaluator for the team; perhaps in addition, real lawyers (or retired “emeritus” counsel) who work(ed) in that kind of environment would also agree to adopt the team to offer more limited but practical assistance as mentors on their issues.  Students would be “tested” or evaluated through the workbooks they complete to log their progress and through the presentation of the results of their team’s efforts to the rest of the student body via a class website.  Part of the evaluation, would of course, include not only their legal savvy and skills, but their ability to work well with others who present a diversity of collaboration issues, and sometimes, hardships.  That’s the point – to make it like “real life” and require students to work through all the stuff that happens: colleagues who are hard to manage or who don’t complete work on time, new exigencies that arise mid-course and require re-direction for the entire matter, financial realities that come into play and require lawyers to balance what’s desirable with what’s practical and affordable, etc.

 

STAGE 3:

Stage 3 is a “live” externship or clinical experience with at least one and hopefully two real life law firms, law departments, or government/non-profit agencies.  For legal employers who wish to interview through the school, this program could constitute a replacement of the traditional summer associate program. This stage presents students with work that is more like a judicial clerkship or an articling process, rather than a summer associate tour through a large law firm with all the trimmings of a sales junket.

 

In thinking about the logistics of arranging practical work environments that are under the supervision of both real-life employers and law school leaders, perhaps some of the current effort focused on summer associate and post-graduate interviewing and placement might be directed to include fostering and supervising these externships, especially since it is likely that the externships might lead to more practical and permanent offers of full-time employment. In addition, such efforts might be coordinated to offer students the opportunity to create and run their own pro bono/public interest law project for a year (perhaps on the kind of model used by Equal Justice Works, or other fellowship providers), encouraging more public interest law experiences.  It is likely that a majority of these externships could be funded, even if not at a level consistent with new lawyer pay or even current summer associate jobs – a more realistic living wage would be offered – or perhaps it could be connected to law school loan repayment programs (such as the LRAP concept).

 

LAWYER ACCREDITATION:

Lawyer accreditation could take place upon graduation at an acceptable standard, and through a review process involving those professionals with whom the student has had extended contact – not through an exam process.  Any exams required of students would have been administered in Stages 1 and 2: what is more critical at the final stage of a lawyer’s certification is the ability of the student to demonstrate that he or she can perform in a live legal environment and contribute to the well-being of clients or the enterprise which they are supporting. The review would be similar to that which the state bars require of candidates who have passed the bar and are seeking local admission or who are completing the professionalism/ethics review portion of their application – wherein we subjectively look at the individual, their performance, and their competencies, not focus on sifting the good test-takers from the bad.

 

LEARNER OUTCOMES:

The learner outcomes for these graduating lawyers would hopefully include:

- Stage One legal “basics”

- practical ethics and professionalism

- simulated business and legal experience

- actual clinical or externship experience

- project management

- research and writing

- time management

- contracts, settlements, and other kinds of negotiation skills

- team building and leadership skills

- structuring and collecting fees

- cross-border practice and facilitation

- staffing alternatives: measuring, “processing” & routinizing workflows

- financial and accounting skills

- client needs assessments–scoping work, communication, management

- practice administration

- technology applications, etc.

 

CONCLUSION:

I realize that this approach is radically different from the current model; I realize it has all kinds of practical flaws.  And I realize we are not able to jump from the present model directly into anything that is completely alien to current realities.  Further, I agree that there are many other ways that law schools could be re-engineered.  My point is not to proclaim that I’ve got it right, but to start us onto a road toward a more meaningful conversation about new and different ways to train lawyers that might allow them to enter their practice environments prepared to both serve clients whose needs and demands are changing, and succeed in workplaces that require them to apply their legal judgment to fashioning innovative solutions to today’s practical problems.   It seems that current conversations are limited to re-arranging a few courses and adding a Thursday night “business of law” or professional issues class as an optional credit – whatever model you might support for the future, most folks would agree that a more significant overhaul is necessary than changing a few courses in the current curriculum model.

 

If we can at least agree that an overhaul or re-engineered process is the goal we are all aiming for, what model would you build to reach it?  How would you fashion the educational model, and begin to approach issues such as US News/World Report rankings, law school administrative issues, the rising cost of tuition, faculty (tenured and associate) assessment and re-assignment to new purposes, ABA law school accreditation standards, accreditation processes, and student needs and expectations?  (among other things!)

 

I welcome your thoughts  –   Susan