Legal Education Reform
American legal education is in crisis. The economic downturn has left many recent law graduates saddled with crushing student loans and bleak job prospects. The law schools have been targets of lawsuits by students and scrutiny from the United States Senate for alleged false advertising about potential jobs. Yet, at the same time, more and more Americans find that they cannot afford any kind of legal help.
Addressing these issues requires changing legal education and how the profession sees its responsibility to serve the public interest as well as clients. Some schools are moving in promising directions. The majority are still stuck in an outdated instructional and business model.
The problems are not new. In 2007, a report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching explained that law schools have contributed heavily to this crisis by giving “only casual attention to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.”
Even after the economy recovers, the outsourcing of legal work from law firms and corporate counsel offices to lower-fee operations overseas is likely to continue. Belatedly, some law schools are trying to align what and how they teach to what legal practice now entails and what individuals and institutions need — like many more lawyers who can serve as advocates for the poor and middle class.
Instead of a curriculum taught largely through professors’ grilling of students about appellate cases, some schools are offering more apprentice-style learning in legal clinics and more courses that train students for their multiple future roles as advocates and counselors, negotiators and deal-shapers, and problem-solvers.
With new legal issues arising from the use of computers in business and government to manage information, some schools are teaching students software code as well as legal code to solve systemwide problems. Some are exploring ways to reduce tuitions and make themselves more sustainable. Potential business models include legal degrees based on two years of classes, followed by third-year apprenticeship programs.
In American law schools, the choice is not between teaching legal theory or practice; the task is to teach useful legal ideas and skills in more effective ways. The case method has been the foundation of legal education for 140 years. Its premise was that students would learn legal reasoning by studying appellate rulings. That approach treated law as a form of science and as a source of truth.
That vision was dated by the 1920s. It was a relic by the 1960s. Law is now regarded as a means rather than an end, a tool for solving problems. In reforming themselves, law schools have the chance to help reinvigorate the legal profession and rebuild public confidence in what lawyers can provide.