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Talk About Bridging the Gap Between Law School Education and Legal Employers’ Needs

It’s pretty much a safe bet that most law school applicants and students don’t want to hear a legal employer equate their three year law school education, with oh… say… a Pontiac. But one general counsel of a large company put it just that way recently and that is the question posed by the title of a recent NALP (National Association for Law Placement)article, Has Legal Education Gone the Way of the Auto Industry?

The article, from the NALP 2010 Bulletin, reports on a December 14, 2009 panel of legal industry experts gathered in New York City “to continue the public conversation about changes that are happening in the legal industry.” The Roundtable Discussion took place among a mix of law firm partners and associates, law school deans and NALP professionals. (NALP is probably best known to law students as the organization that provides the industry guidelines that govern on-campus interviewing (OCI) by legal employers at law schools around the country).

Highlights from the Roundtable discussions include the following:

•A back and forth about how the law school curriculum may need to change in response to changes in the economy and the industry and the role of law firms in training young lawyers.

•Philip Bradley, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Duane Reade, pointed to the gap between what law schools think they’re doing and what the law firms think they’re buying.” Bradley continued, “For the law schools to continue to churn out people in sort of the academic vein without bridging that gap makes you somewhat akin to the car companies — you’re manufacturing something that nobody wants.” He called on law schools to come into the modern world and “bridge the gap” because “the luxury of practicing law for three years to learn how to practice law — which was what it was when [he] came out of law school — isn’t there today.”

•A discussion focused on lawyer training and development both in law school and through the practice of law. Law firm and law school participants recognized that law schools do a good job of teaching the essential skill of “thinking like a lawyer,” but also that law schools have to find better ways to teach a wide range of professional skills, loosely categorized by Dean William Treanor of Fordham University School of Law, as “the craft of lawyering skills”(these include clinical skills for both litigation and transactional practices, professionalism, business and quantitative skills, ethics, sense of service, problem solving skills group and teamwork skills and an awareness of emotional intelligence).

•A discussion of integrating more “experiential learning into the curriculum,” without raising the cost of a legal education “by including more widespread use of internships and by providing more opportunities for specialization within the curriculum.” This will require greater collaboration between law firm lawyers and law schools.

•The group drew insight from information about the “Canadian articling process, a year-long training program required by the provincial licensing authority in Canada that accomplishes many of the goals clients and firms in the U.S. say they want.”

•There was discussion of law firms transitioning away from lock step advancement by law school class to “levels-based” advancement and compensation schemes. “Profitability is going to depend more on … organizational capital in the future, as opposed to individual rainmaker capital.”

•Bradley suggested that law firms take a “short-term view of things” when they “skinny back on the professional development programs [at law firms] in times of economic distress.” He pointed to in-house counsels’ frustration at law firm partners focused too much on “profits per equity partner” rather than investing in the in-demand group of people that they’ll be pulling through the system.”

To hear from the Executive Director of NALP, Jim Leipold, on what changes in the legal industry mean for law school applicants and students, tune into the Law School Podcaster episode “The Current Economic Environment .”

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