Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to Improve Legal Education in America

In a series of recent conversations with fellow blogger WK, we explored some ideas for helping to improve the standard of legal education in the United States. As noted in the Wall Street Journal law blog recently, law school applications are up. The economy is still stagnant, and people are looking for an option to avoid the realities of the job market for a few years, so they're applying to law school. At Cornell Law, applications are up 52% this year. So with that in mind, here are a few things I think would really go a long way toward improving the quality and usefulness of law school.

Treat Law School Like Trade School

For most law students, the chance of getting a job with a BigLaw firm or a prestigious clerkship are pretty slim. Given the recent economy and the troubles that the financial sector have endured lately, those chances are growing ever slimmer, as big law firms are forced to downsize, restrict hiring, and limit recruiting. The reality, however, is that this doesn't directly affect the large majority of practicing lawyers and law students. Though the high salaries of the BigLaw jobs make the headlines and stand out in people's minds, they're a far cry from what most of us look forward to. The fact is that most law students graduate and become small firm attorneys or solo practitioners. With that in mind, law schools should gear more of their efforts toward accommodating this market, rather than pretending like everyone has a shot at a clerkship or a Biglaw job. Instead of offering so many classes about legal theory and super-specialized topics, offer more classes about how to run a law firm or how to practice law in a courtroom. Baylor has the right idea with the Practice Court advocacy exercises and classes like Criminal Practice and Procedure. I'd like to see more law schools offering coursework that caters to the reality that most students will encounter upon entering the practice of law. Which definitely includes...

Require Writing Classes During All 3 Years of Law School

But Justin, you say, are you saying that you want to do even more work than you already have to do? Well, not exactly. But the fact is that lawyers, for better or worse, are writers. A novelist who writes 250 words a day will write around 90,000 words a year, which is a novel a year- not bad at all. On the other hand, a lawyer who writes 250 words a day has probably been at work for about 15 minutes (hat tip: Mike). Lawyers write for a living. Motions, letters to clients, responses, opinions, requests, we spend most of our lives researching and writing. So why do most law schools only offer legal writing 2 semesters out of 6? Writing should be an integral part of legal education, and not just in the first year. 

Stop Building New Law Schools

I love the University of North Texas. It's my alma mater for both undergraduate and graduate school, and I want nothing more than to see them succeed. That said, I was pretty annoyed when I heard they were opening a new public law school in Dallas. The legal market isn't generally getting any bigger, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the job market is getting smaller. This isn't the time to be adding new law schools to the hundreds we already have. And while we're at it...

Stop Letting Everyone Into Law School

Law could use a few tips from medicine, I think. There are 158 medical schools in the United States, and everyone knows that medical school isn't easy to get into, even if you go to a lesser-known medical school. There are currently 200 accredited law schools in the United States, with more opening and gaining provisional accreditation every year, as well as a handful of non-accredited schools scattered across the country in states like California and Massachusetts. As I said earlier, the market for legal services isn't necessarily getting bigger, and the job market is definitely getting smaller, leading to more and more lawyers graduating with few job prospects and staggering amounts of debt. The fact is that if you're willing to go to a second-rate law school, just about anyone can get into a law school in the United States. Supply and demand don't magically walk out the door when one enters the hallowed halls of legal institutions, and law schools had better start realizing this if they want the quality of legal education to remain intact.

Strip the ABA of its Title as Sole Regulator

As I understand it (and that's a shaky premise to go on right there), the ABA is the sole body responsible for accreditation and management of law schools in the US. This is problematic for several reasons, chiefly because there's no one looking over the ABA's shoulder to make sure that legal education isn't circling the drain quality-wise.  The Department of Education, or at least some sort of regulatory body, needs to step in and take control of the ABA, which will provide some checks and balances to the unbalanced system of unilateral quality control currently in place.

Another Tip From Medicine- Residency Requirements

In medical school, doctors spend 2 years in the classroom, learning all the fundamentals about biology, biochemistry, anatomy, histology, pathology, and a whole bunch of other -ologies designed to teach them the inner workings of the human body. Then, they spend the next 2 years learning the ins and outs of patient care, doing clinical rounds. After graduation, they're required to spend a minimum of a year or two in residency- learning how to parlay their 4 years of education  into the actual practice of medicine. In short, in school they learn the required material to become a doctor, and then they're required to learn how to be a doctor. Law school, however, has no such requirement. A law student can graduate, take the bar exam, and on the day those bar results come in, they can go out and practice law. There's something fundamentally wrong with this. Most law schools don't teach you how to be a practicing lawyer (Baylor is among few exceptions, and the price for that extra lesson is the proverbial pound of law student flesh). Legal education could do well from teaching students how to actually practice law rather than how to "think like a lawyer" (which, judging by things here lately at good old Baylor, means hating everyone and everything about every 10 weeks or so).

What do you think? Am I wrong? What suggestions do you have for improving legal education in the US?

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