Are Law Schools About To Start Teaching Law Students How To Practice Law?

by Rich Cassidy on November 20, 2011

My last five posts have been on the same topic: the need to change legal education to add enough practical education to permit law students to start practice at a basically competent level, and by doing so allow some of them improve access to justice by serving the needs of low and middle income clients. In my last post, What’s Legal Education Got To Do With Access to Justice?, I suggested that there is real reason to believe that change is in the wind. Let me tell you what I see.

First, it’s pretty clear that there is significant dissatisfaction with the present system of legal education. For one thing, there has been a rash of class action law suits against law schools alleging that the schools have systematically overstated placement rates for their graduates. Just a month before the ABA Delivery of Legal Services Committee met at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Law School Transparency reported that a graduate, Anna Alaburda, had sued the school on a class action basis. According to the post, “Breaking: Class Action Suit Filed Against Thomas Jefferson School of Law,” the complaint alleges that “the law school has engaged in fraudulent and deceptive practices including ‘a practice of misrepresenting its post-graduation employment statistics.'”

Thomas Jefferson is by no means the sole law school to face these claims. In August, Above The Law reported that the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and New York Law School had been sued as well. “Cooley Law and NYLS Hit With Class Action Lawsuits”

Then in October, Above the Law noted that 15 more law schools, including my alma mater, Albany Law School, are being sued:

• Albany Law School (reports rates of between 91% and 97%);
• Brooklyn Law School (reports rates of between 91% and 98%);
• California Western School of Law (reports rates of between 90% and 93%);
• Chicago-Kent College of Law (reports rates of between 90% and 97%);
• DePaul University College of Law (reports rates of between 93% and 98%);
• Florida Coastal School of Law (reports rates of between 80% and 95%);
• Hofstra Law School (reports rates of between 94% and 97%);
• John Marshall School of Law (Chicago) (reports rates of between 90% and 100%);
• Pace University School of Law (reports rates of between 90% and 95%);
• Southwestern Law School (reports rates of between 97% and 98%);
• St. John’s University School of Law (reports rates of between 88% and 96%);
• University of Baltimore School of Law (reports rates of between 93% and 95%);
• University of San Francisco School of Law (reports rates of between 90% and 95%);
• Villanova University School of Law (reports rates of between 93% and 98%); and
• Widener University School of Law (reports rates of between 90% and 96%).

Fifteen More Law Schools to Be Hit with Class Action Lawsuits Over Post-Grad Employment Rates
In fact, whatever the reality is about the accuracy of particular law school placement rates, the litigation reflects a fact that is obvious to law graduates and even to many in the practice of law. There is huge population of recent law graduates floating around who just can’t find jobs in the profession. Many have huge education debts, and most of them are quite capable young people. This represents a huge waste of talent, money, and human potential.

Second, some legal scholars are studying the need for change and suggesting innovative models for reform of legal education. Consider, for example, William Mitchell College of Law Professor, John O. Sonsteng’s book, A Legal Education Renaissance: A Practical Approach For The Twenty-First Century, (Vandeplas Publishing May 22, 2008). Sonsteng argues that using modern teaching and learning techniques, law schools can meet the needs of law students and reduce costs.

Professor Sonsteng is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Carnegie Foundation President Lee S. Shulman argued, in releasing the Foundation’s 2007 study, “Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law,” that “[t]he gap between learning to think like a lawyer and being capable of acting like a lawyer, both clinically and morally, is, if anything, greater than it’s ever been before.”

Third, there a number of law schools that are indeed running programs intended to teach law students what they need to know to practice law. Just this fall, New York Law School (one of the defendants mentioned above), announced the initiation of its new first-year skills program, “Legal Practice,” a two-semester set of required courses designed to prepare students for their first legal work experience. The program engages students in work with standardized clients: “trained actors with whom students practice their interviewing, fact-gathering, and counseling skills. This approach is modeled after the ‘standardized patient’ exercises in medical schools.” “New York Law School Launches New Legal Practice Course.”

“Top-Colleges” reports that most of New York Law School’s 15 new faculty hires in the last two years were recruited from the ranks of practicing lawyers to support the new initiative. Law Schools Shift Curriculum: Emphasize Practical Legal Skills. It also reports new practice-oriented initiatives at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, at Stanford Law School, and even at the birthplace of the Langdell case method, Harvard Law School.

A few law schools have even gone beyond classroom and clinical instruction, and have established incubator projects to get law graduates up in running in supported solo practices aimed at providing legal services to middle class and poor persons. One such program, CUNY School of Law’s Community Legal Resource Network (CLRN) was the Delivery of Legal Services Committee’s Brown Award winner for 2010. Just this week, The National Law Journal reports that in September of 2012, Pace Law School will join CUNY, the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, and the University of Maryland School of Law, in running incubator programs. “Pace Solo Incubator Will Assist Low-Income Clients.”

These programs aren’t likely to attract large percentages of the extraordinarily academically well qualified undergraduate students who are headed to highly selective law schools in the steep climb to the best judicial clerkships, the most prestigious law firms, and traditional law school academic careers. But those students are a small group to begin with, and even most of them won’t make the grade to the most competitive jobs.

For the vast majority of law students who will be entering the scramble of making a living practicing law in less rarified practice environments, choosing programs that will actually teach how to practice law would seem far more important than choosing a law school with a marginally higher U.S. News and World Report ranking.

Fourth, the organized bar has begun to acknowledge this problem. At this year’s American Bar Association Annual Meeting, a number of resolutions adopted by House of Delegates relate to this problem. Resolution 111A, proposed by the Young Lawyers Division, and co-sponsored by the Law Student Division, calls upon Congress to enact legislation assisting individuals who are experiencing “excessive levels of student debt.” While not limited to law graduates, the resolution certainly addresses a major concern for them, and the report accompanying the resolution notes that most law students need to earn an average of $65,000 a year to repay student loans, but “most law school graduates are unlikely to obtain a salary of $65,000.” The Young Lawyers and Law Student Division also proposed Resolution 111B, calling upon all ABA-Approved Law Schools to report specific post graduation employment data and per credit costs of legal education.

The most interesting of these resolutions was a late resolution, offered by the New York State Bar Association, and adopted without opposition from the Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (but with apparent skepticism from that quarter). Resolution 10B resolves that the American Bar Association should “take steps” to assure that “law schools, law firms, CLE providers and others concerned with professional development provide the knowledge, skills, and values, that are required of the successful lawyer.” It goes on to urge “legal education providers to implement curricular programs intended to develop practice-ready lawyers including, but not limited to, enhanced capstone and clinical courses that include client meetings and court appearances.” Just what steps are intended is not specified, but I think we know where this resolution is aimed.

Finally, this very weekend, the failure of law schools to teach law students to practice law reached a new pinnacle of public attention. It was featured in the New York Times, which published “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” on the front page of the Business Section, (and on page A-1 of today’s Times New York Edition).
In describing the present market, New York Times Correspondent David Segal wrote:

To succeed in this environment, graduates will need entrepreneurial skills, management ability and some expertise in landing clients. They will need to know less about Contracts and more about contracts.

Yes, I think change is in the wind. It’s certainly not too early. But I expect this change will take a long time.

Rich

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