Law Schools Waking Up – Dumping 3rd Year Curriculum For the Practical

I woke up this morning and smiled from ear-to-ear as I read this article.  And buried in there was a jewel..

“A lot of the changes are in response to the marketplace,” said David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University School of Law. “Students are concerned about getting jobs, and everybody wants to be relevant.”

Graduates face stiff competition for law firm positions, and clients are balking at footing the bill to train new attorneys. Consequently, law school leaders consider it more important than ever to send students into the profession armed with practical skills, not just extensive knowledge of case law and legal theory. More law schools are modifying coursework and adding practical classes to help students develop the skills past graduates have had the luxury of learning on the job. In that vein, a growing number of law schools are emphasizing teamwork, leadership, professional judgment and the ability to view issues from the clients’ perspective.

“I think we are at a moment of historical change across the landscape of legal education,” said Washington and Lee Dean Rodney A. Smolla. “When we look back at this period in five to 10 years, we will mark it as the time when the whole mission of law schools made a fundamental turn.”

Some who have already graduated may say, ‘too little, too late’ but at least it is happening.  Now when they offer graduates who are struggling some much needed assistance through their alumni programs then we know the schools have really recognized they can’t ever go back to the old ways.

I’d like to suggest a few more changes:

  • Bring on more adjuncts who can bring practical knowledge
  • Give the adjuncts a say on curriculum and a ‘vote’ on other matters relating to the overall education
  • Tell the ABA to wake up and not screw it up with their political bulls#$t when creative and pioneering schools take the lead in revamping their programs
  • Denouncing U.S. News and World Reports lists and tell the law schools to no longer participate. ABA should create their own top list with input from students!!!

I wrote this  CT Law Tribune article more than 3 years ago denouncing the law school curriculum.

What do you think? Let’s keep the discussion going on this.  It’s too important to let slide by.

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7 comments on “Law Schools Waking Up – Dumping 3rd Year Curriculum For the Practical

  • It is about time! Law students are not given any practical knowledge in law school. Its expected to come from their first job. In this economy, most employers are not willing to train someone directly out of law school, when they can get someone who has been practicing for 2 or 3 years for the same money.

    I hope that this program catches on. Also, I hope that they take it a step further…using the court systems. It always baffled me that there was not a course in law school that taught the students how to use the courts. I understand that people may choose to practice in different regions of the country, but learning how to navigate the court system is a key skill that all attorneys should have. As a 3L, there should be an entire course where the students are required to learn where the clerks are, where papers are filed, what to do if you get there and the papers are wrong, etc.

    Touro Law School in Central Islip, NY has started a “practical” program also and I hope more schools will follow.

    Stefanie Devery, Esq.

  • I am very pleased to see that law schools are waking up to the fact that times have changed and they need to change too.

    It has always amazed me that newbie lawyers are so clueless. In fact, in many of the firms I have worked, new associates are coached by an experienced staff member on everything from how to back and serve a document, to who to speak with in order to get an adjournment. I mean, how can someone pay for such an extensive education only to come out the other end unable to perform the most basic legal tasks such a serve and file a document?

    Along with teaching leadership and how to view things as a client would, law schools also need to include basic business courses in their new offerings. There should be no need for an attorney to have to work at a law firm in order to learn how a law practice operates.

  • In this current climate, I endorse any changes that law schools can implement that will help students find jobs. However, I never fully understood the argument that law schools don’t offer adequate skills training. I attended Cornell, a very traditional law school in a rural area with few opportunities for internships that are available in larger cities. Still, even 20 years ago, Cornell had a robust legal aid clinic, a family law clinic, several trial advocacy courses. I took trial advocacy and worked at a small firm one summer, a large firm the next. Between those experiences, I felt adequately prepared to identify what I needed to do if not actually implement it. And again, I did the bare minimum; I certainly could have taken the legal aid course or volunteered in the clinic.

    The problem with teaching the real nitty gritty stuff like how to serve papers or execute a will and FORCING students to take these classes is that these procedures differ state to state. I can file papers with my eyes closed in federal court in Maryland, but when I recently handled a federal case pro hac in Pennsylvania, I had to read the local rules and start all over again. Law students should certainly have access to complaints and contracts and real work product (including retainer letters and the like) when studying courses like ethics, contract law, etc…as well as access to practice handbooks and the like but frankly, I would have been miffed at paying tuition to learn all about how to file a pleading in state court in NY (which has rules that differ substantially from other jurisdictions) and then have to figure it out all over again when I moved to this area.

    I also don’t agree with the idea of paying tuition to work for free. If a third year program will involve working or on the job training, then it should be structured as a grad school program or medical residency or the trainings overseas. Again, in the current climate, this may not be as much of an issue given that people are working for free anyway. But if a student has a chance to work, during school, for even $10/hr, why should he/she have to forego that opportunity to take a fake course.

    • First, as you noted, 20 years ago the climate was quite different then today. And I don’t agree that students won’t pay to have real world experience within the safety of law school so they can have options and feel comfortable when they get out. Practical training is also ‘educational’. I can’t count the number of times people have said, “I wish I’d learned this in law school”..so there is an expectation for this training and disappointment when it isn’t offered. Now it is translating into professional and economic misery for many.

      There have been numerous articles written on the ‘waste’ of the third year taking electives (not for all) but structurally there is more that could be done including practical training. I’ve written vehemently against a grad-school residency type program because you should get what you need while in school and at the very least, it should be available for those who want it and not in a one-shot seminar-style approach.

      Idealizing law school isn’t practical today. Students need to get in the trenches, down and dirty with the practical applications while they are still safely ensconced in the academic womb. Big Law is being forced to acknowledge this because clients won’t pay for on-the-job training. They don’t want to be an extension of law school. I don’t blame them. In this climate it is economic suicide. And the law schools are responding to both Big Law and their paying customers. They have to or go out of business.

      Resume building should begin as a 1L and much of the hard-work needs to be done in law school and law school needs to provide the ‘work’. Just because some may not ever want to get their hands dirty because that’s not what they are getting their degree for is irrelevant. They just might appreciate it down the road when they decide Big Law isn’t for them or they have to open a solo practice.

  • Amen to all of the comments! I had no idea what the docs looked like when I landed my first job as an attorney even though I could recite the Black Letter Law backwards and forward. It was terrifying!

    My very first day as a new attorney, a partner waltzed into my office and asked me to write a Motion in Limine. (I had to keep my “regular” job during law school to support myself and family, so I did not have the opportunity to learn on the job as a summer intern.) As soon as the partner left my office, I looked up “Motion in Limine” in Black’s Law Dictionary, then asked a secretary to bring me a file which I supposed would have some motions. ….. I certainly wish there had been an Internet at the time!

    To this day, I resent being charged a ton of money for law school without ever seeing what format an attorney’s final work product should look like. Call it “hide the ball”, or “maintaining the intellectual integrity of the study of law”, or whatever, I wasn’t in law school to stroke some professor’s ego. I don’t think many, if any, law students are.

  • I agree wholeheartedly. I wish programs like this had been available when I went to law school. I’ll never forget the gut-clenching fear that hit when I realized that although I could recite the standard for granting summary judgment in my sleep, I had no idea how exactly to transform the stack of evidence into a brief that would satisfy the standard.

    I also wish law schools would offer more classes on the business of law. How do law firms operate? How does a lawyer get new clients? And what exactly does “good client service” mean beyond doing the substantive legal work well? These are things that every lawyer needs to know, but are rarely actually taught to law students.

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