Medical students learn the ropes on real patients during hospital rounds. Student journalists practice by writing stories. But if learning-by-doing seems an obvious way to master a profession, one corner of higher education has largely avoided it: law schools.
Critics say the 200 accredited law schools in the United States are guilty of building some of academia’s tallest ivory towers, where students learn to “think like lawyers” but get little preparation for what attorneys actually do.
The result: a rising chorus of complaints from employers that even after three years of school (and $150,000 or more in tuition), the 50,000 annual law school graduates still need to be trained on the job.
A number of prominent law schools, including Harvard and Stanford, have responded lately by beginning to shake up how they teach. Now, a small but respected law school in Virginia, Washington & Lee University, is planning even more fundamental changes likely to attract widespread notice in the legal community.
The school is announcing plans to have students spend their final year – a time for breezy classes and little hard work at many schools – in “practicum” courses, where they will imitate real-world lawyering every step of the way.
It works like this: Typically, in a business law class, for example, students work through a hefty book where they study a range of cases. Students might follow the full range of legal problems that would typically come before a single company – antitrust, real estate, consumer protection and international law. The classes would still largely be taught on campus, perhaps by a professor along with a visiting practising attorney.
“I think that prestige within the world of law schools became tied exclusively to the intellectual, theoretical side of legal study,” Washington & Lee law dean Rodney Smolla said. “That became the currency by which law professors judged one another.”
Law schools have fallen short in helping the young “learning to absorb the complicated facts that a client presents them with,” Smolla said.
Some law schools whose professors don’t necessarily publish the most articles or have the most prestige, including the City University of New York and the Massachusetts School of Law, have been focused on practical lawyering for years.
Last year, a report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching fuelled the debate by arguing the traditional approach has left the “impression that lawyers are more like competitive scholars than attorneys engaged with the problems of clients.”
Students are well taught in boiling down facts and applying the law. But most cases are messy, and students don’t learn to navigate complex ethical and social issues, or work together to solve problems.
The Carnegie report has prompted several conferences to talk about reform. At Harvard, where the first modern law school curriculum was laid out in 1872, a committee surveyed alumni about their professional experiences, leading to changes including more emphasis on regulatory and international law.
Stanford has emphasized interdisciplinary study, and both are giving students more opportunities for clinical practice. Detroit Mercy School of Law has begun requiring courses that simulate work in a large law firm.
At Washington & Lee, Robin Fretwell Wilson has already begun teaching a pilot class in family law along the lines of the new model and said the differences are substantial. It’s an entirely different approach that focuses on navigating the intricacies of an actual prenuptial agreement, for example, and the questions students will need to understand – like what it really means when an agreement calls for “best” efforts instead of “reasonable” ones.
Jim Alfini, dean of the South Texas College of Law in Houston and former chair of the American Bar Association’s legal education curriculum committee, called Washington & Lee’s changes the most substantial he’s seen. But he noted that more students are picking non-traditional careers like business and public interest work and said it’s important for the new approach to provide the “flexibility” they need.
For students at Washington & Lee, which will phase in the changes over the next few years, the downside could be the end of the famously halcyon third year. Typically, students take small, contemplative classes and – since at many top schools they already have jobs lined up – focus mostly on playing softball and bar-hopping.
But first-year student Eric Hoffman said he is willing to put in the extra work if the program – as he expects – makes Washington & Lee graduates more appealing in the job market.
“I think we’re at a point in our lives when we grow up a little and say, ‘All my peers are already working 60-hour-per-week jobs,”‘ he said. “I can be working just hard for something that will better prepare me for the legal profession.”
-with a report from CP