THE NEOPHYTE LAWYER: YEAR ONE
DAY 56: TEACHING SKILLS AT LAW SCHOOL? INCONCEIVABLE!
I was all set to spend some time talking about the Casey Anthony verdict, and the utter uselessness of Facebook petitions (Hint: If the petition doesn’t ultimately end up in the hands of someone who can actually do something about your cause du jour, it’s a waste of time, effort, and megabytes. Just sayin’.). I also toyed with the idea of tackling the ever-so-fun topic of tort
immunity reform, but I think I’ll save that for another time.
Instead, I want to mention this article in the Wall Street Journal. Apparently some law schools are scrapping the traditional Socratic Method analysis of casebooks and adding more courses teaching practical skill sets. Many clients, especially the corporate clients of big law firms, are increasingly unwilling to pay newly-minted attorneys while they learn how to actually practice law. With employment opportunities for new laws school graduates at a 10-year low, some of the lower-tier law schools are coming to the conclusion that doing what they have always done isn’t working anymore. A few of the big dogs (Harvard and Stanford, for example) are also taking notice.
I see this as part of a larger trend. I’ve discussed some of the problems facing law schools in earlier posts here, here, and a bit here. Here’s the problem, as I see it. Law schools do a very good job of teaching law students how to read and brief cases, and how to take law school exams (up to and including the Bar Exam).Where they seem to fail somewhat miserably is in teaching their students “what happens next.” The actual business of practicing law seems to be an afterthought.
Let’s use my case as an example. We were required to take only one “skills” class. Among the approved skills classes were things like “Lawyering Skills,” “Trial Advocacy,” “Drafting Contracts,” and things like that. I don’t recall ever seeing a class on the business of law, billing clients, case management, or anything like that. That doesn’t mean that those classes aren’t offered at my alma mater; I just never saw them offered while I was there.
The result of this emphasis on the “traditional” model of law school education is that new graduates have almost no idea what they need to do in order to make a living practicing law. The expectation seems to be that they will be hired by a big law firm, learn what they need to know there (on the client’s dime), and then they can go out and rake in the big bucks.
Unfortunately, only 68% of law school graduates in my graduating year (2010) found jobs in the profession within nine months of graduation. If the jobs at law firms, both big and small, aren’t there, where are these graduates going to learn the ropes?
The problems with legal education may even be a contributing factor to the ongoing “Rakofsky v. The Internet” saga that I talked about here. I don’t have any idea what the curriculum at Touro Law Center is like. But it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that if more practical skills classes were required at all law schools, young attorneys like Mr. Rakofsky might be better equipped to avoid the kind of ugly situation he now faces.
In short, my reaction to the Wall Street Journal Story is something akin to, “Well, it’s about time.” There needs to be a balance between theory in practice. Law students definitely need to be able to read and analyze case law, statutes, etc. But they also need to know what to do with that information once it has been read and analyzed. Law schools are very good at the former, not so good at the latter.
Can law schools change their collective mindsets about this? Perhaps. But they might also adopt the attitude of my favorite Sicilian, Vizzini: