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Law Schools Failing Their Clientele

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This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Law schools failing their clientele."

A pdf of the article can be found here and my past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Law schools failing their clientele

Law schools need an attitude adjustment. Their current educational platform is a near total failure and provides graduates with little, if any, practical knowledge.

The current system teaches students how to “think like lawyers,” but essentially ignores the obligation to teach them how to actually practice law. It is rooted in an archaic mindset that looks backward rather than forward.

Most law schools’ curricula tend to ignore the realities of the business world and discourage students from using emerging technologies. Surprisingly, the incorporation and acceptance of emerging technologies, including social media, actually is discouraged in many cases.

As law schools rest on their laurels, relying on antiquated teaching techniques that do little to prepare students for the realities of law practice, the profession as a
whole suffers.

In recent months, I’ve had many discussions with law students and recent graduates about this issue.

Inevitably, whenever I speak with recent law school graduates they express a nearly universal feeling of being completely unprepared to practice law.

Many express consternation with their plight. Even attorneys who have been practicing law for a number of years as associates feel unprepared to venture out on their own.

One associate in a firm who has been practicing law for more than two years, had aspirations to start his own criminal defense practice, but indicated he felt he lacked the experience to do so.

His reluctance and anxiety are particularly disturbing given that,according to a recent study, nearly 80 percent of lawyers either are solos or practice in small firms. Most law schools ignore that reality and prepare students for the miniscule possibility they will spend their careers toiling away in Big Law. 

As a result, future lawyers and practicing lawyers are virtually unanimous in their criticism of the current curricula and the teaching methods used.

When I asked my followers on Twitter for their opinions on theissue, most said they believe law schools simply are failing to prepare students for the realities of law practice.

RWSJR: “Most of the people I know who went to law school in the early ‘90s no longer, or have never, practiced law. Expectations not managed.” —Ralph Smithers Jr., insurance professional and husband of a criminal defense attorney

SMungmung: “The Socratic system is not effective; shift of teaching strategies = right direction but still remains theoretical. Need more clinics!” —New York attorney

Jenslegalpad: “More practical classes. ... Sure we’re all smart enough to figure it out on our own, but after $90K in tuition, should we have to?” —Jennifer H. Bernstrein, New York

Shawnjroberts: “Law schools need to have required internships like med schools, to guarantee practical experience.” —Shawn J. Roberts, Oklahoma attorney

BabFab: “Project Management! Running a big litigation is all about PM. Law schools need to teach these skills.” —New York

DisabilityGuy: “I was told by new law students that using computers to take notes was strongly discouraged during orientation.” (Widener Law School) —Stephen Butler, Delaware attorney

“The job search process…is focused on the top 5 percent of the class. Few schools do a good job of catering to the rest of the class. … [T]here are almost zero resources in the schools to help [students who want to start their own practices].” — Bobbi-Sue Doyle-Hazard, Massachusetts attorney

Overall, the consensus is that the current system is broken. Until law schools drastically revise current curricula and their attitude toward change, the legal profession will suffer. Law schools need to radically alter the current philosophy in order to serve the needs of their clientele —the future leaders of our profession.

The failure to do so will be felt for years to come.

Comments

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EW

I certainly agree that legal education needs some revisions, but it seems to me that you are guilty of the same singled-mindedness that you accuse law schools of harboring.

It is true that law schools claim to teach students to "think like a lawyer" and do not include practical skills in their required curricula, for the most part. However, many professions face this dilemma of the training being overly academic and the realities of the workplace requiring skills not taught in school. One need only spend ten minutes in any university’s college of education and then ten minutes in a fourth-grade classroom to see that the lofty aspirations for Blume’s Taxonomy are abandoned the first time a child brings his pet snake to school. Does that mean that the taxonomy should not be taught? Certainly not, it means the teacher should do his best to incorporate as much of it as he can around mandatory standardized testing and extracting gum out of children’s hair as painlessly as possible.

Furthermore, I find it quite disturbing to criticize law schools for looking back when that is how a common-law system works. Stare decisis requires that one look back to support the current argument. Furthermore, understanding the past brings the present into the clearer focus. Justice Holmes was not merely waxing poetic when he wrote “a page of history is work a volume of logic.” If someone understands the realities of the past, one understands the “why” of the current law.

In addressing your criticism of law schools and technology, it seems that you and your Twitter followers completely missed the point. Law schools want to ensure that their graduates can still function with even the most meager resources. Not every firm or agency can afford unlimited online legal research. Those who know how to research without the technology are far superior attorneys than those who can only twiddle their thumbs once the internet goes down.

Also, the fact that law schools may prefer that students take notes by hand is not a fear of technology, it is a desire to create better lawyers. First, study after study shows that people retain information better when they first write it down and later transcribe into a computer. I’m afraid the data on this point leaves absolutely no room for rebuttal. Second, if students were actually using their computers solely to take notes, law schools would have no problems with laptops. Unfortunately, most students with computers spend an inordinate amount of time surfing the internet for shoes, game scores, plane tickets, and other things that probably should not be mentioned in polite company. In so doing, they are not paying attention and not learning the law. I have no doubt that some of the very people who are now claiming that law school ill-prepared them for practice spent much of their time in law school staring at sites ESPN or Niemen-Marcus. Who is to blame for that?

A final point I wish to make is that not everyone who attends law school wishes to become a litigator, or even an attorney. Must law schools turn into litigator-factories? Honestly, would you really trust an attorney who went to the DeVry of law schools? Law schools frequently offer skills courses to expose students to trial practice, discovery techniques, contract drafting and every other skill under the sun. Some schools even require their students to take at least one course in skills to ensure that no-one graduates without some exposure to the working world.

Let’s be honest, though. Your acquaintance who fears to open his practice is being needlessly paranoid. To start, bar associations from coast to coast offer courses to instruct attorneys on how to open their practice, how to manage it, where to look for resources or guidance, and even provide client referrals. To claim that after years of practice a person is still unprepared to venture on his own speaks more of his own personal faults than the failings of his law school.

Harry Styron

Nikki,
I think that law firms should expect to train new lawyers. Each firm has its own culture, methods and standards and should be better suited than a law school to put polish on a new lawyer.

The third year of law school is very expensive, but often of marginal academic value. Northwestern University's two-year law program is an experiment worth watching.

The third year of student loan debt puts salary pressure on employers, although the overhead of law schools has swollen to depend on it.


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