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Beyond Thinking Like a Lawyer

What Changes in Legal Education Mean for Law Students

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Steeped in books and theory, the traditional curriculum at most law schools hasn’t changed in decades. But the tighter job market is bringing changes – albeit a bit slowly.  Law firms, businesses, and the clients they serve, are demanding that more be done by law schools to train and prepare properly future lawyers while they are still in school.  What does this mean if you are a prospective law student? What should you be looking for to get the most innovative, practical and relevant law school experience?  We talk with law school deans, law professors and those on the front lines of developing new paths in law school to help bridge the gap from law school to law practice.

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Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process.  I’m Althea Legaspi.  For decades now, traditional legal education has been steeped in books and theory.  But with the down economy and tight job market, changes for new lawyers and law schools are on the horizon.  While tuition costs rise for law students, clients of the nation’s law firms are resisting the traditional business model, where new lawyers learned practical skills on the client’s dime.  New lawyers are expected to perform at higher levels right out of the gate, and law schools are innovating to meet the new demands.

How does this affect prospective law students?  And what should you be seeking to make sure you get the most value from your law school experience?  We speak to those on the front lines forging new paths and bridging the gap between law school education and law school practice.  Paul Schiff Berman is the Dean of George Washington University Law School.  William D. Henderson is a Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.  Nancy Rapoport is the Gordon Silver Professor of Law at University of Nevada Las Vegas.  Patrick J. Lynch is Co-Founder and Policy Director of Law School Transparency, a consumer advocacy group for law school students.  Together they provide insight on the recent measures being taken to meet the new challenges and opportunities in law school education.

“Schools have always had a dual role, both in providing broad-based training in deep legal thinking, reasoning by analogy, and applying law to facts in order to make multiple arguments from multiple points of view.  And at the same time, providing more actionable skills that allow lawyers to do real things in the real world immediately out of law school.  And I think with the change in the job market occasioned by the changes in the economy, there has been an increased demand that law schools be sure that they address both parts of legal education, and not only the more theoretical.”

Law School Transparency’s Co-Founder and Policy Director, Patrick J. Lynch, says increased skills training is something every law school’s looking at, to improve the services they offer.  “I think for many that where they’re going to come down on that is that they have to provide some improvement in the way that they actually train people to practice law.  A good example of that is the rise of solo practitioner sort of prep courses, where they prepare people on the chance that the only option to enter the legal profession is to hang out the shingle, that schools are now offering better training, so that people can actually do that right from the get-go.  And I think that’s a great example of a really practical skill training method that is probably very necessary at a lot of law schools to do.  I think that that sort of thing, it can be very helpful, I think, looking at… we’ve spoken with a number of law schools that are working more with local attorneys to develop mentorship programs, and actually get students very early on during law school really socializing and getting to know and pursuing internships and legal work with lawyers in the community, which I think is a great way to sort of supplement the traditional in-course curriculum with the type of networking and skills training that you really need to succeed in this profession.”

Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William D. Henderson says additional skills training can give law school students a broader scope for future positions.  “I think that there is some usefulness towards skill training in terms of legal writing, some litigation-type training, some transactional drafting-type training.  But I also think it needs to go beyond that to focus on collaborative skills, teamwork-type skills, interpersonal skills, communication, effectiveness, trust building, listening skills.  I think that these are more transferable and are going to allow law school graduates to be effective in a variety of professional contexts, not just litigation-associated or transaction-associated at a major law firm.”

So, how specifically are schools executing more actionable skills training into their curricula?  Let’s start with 1L programs.  Henderson details what’s being implemented at Indiana University.  “We’ve been going down this road for the last four years.  We have a 1L legal professions class where students are put into teams, and they… it’s professional responsibility, but it’s also, in addition, satisfying that ABA requirement.  It also focuses on giving students the tools to make intelligent career decisions.  So, they learn a lot about the legal profession, they meet a lot of practicing lawyers, they… we go through a series of fairly critical readings on the legal profession.  We’re hoping that our students can, (A), find a practice setting that resonates with their values, and (B), begin to acquire the skills that are necessary to distinguish themselves in that practice context, all the while using team-based learning to learn the role of lawyering and the model roles of professional responsibility.  And it seems to be working fairly well, because we map… or we track the progress of our students on a thing called ‘Law School Survey of Student Engagement’, which allows us to see how our students are doing in a variety of outcome measures over time, and also allow us to benchmark our students against students at other law schools.  And because it’s a 1L curriculum, it makes it — which is standard throughout most law schools — it allows us to see how much progress we’re making, and I think that the early results are that we’re making progress.  And our faculty is beginning to think about, what are we going to do in the second and third years to extend the competencies that we focused on in the 1L year?

University of Las Vegas Nevada’s Gordon Silver Professor, Nancy Rapoport, explains what they’ve implemented for 1Ls.  “We held about two years of faculty meetings, and we decided that it was time to give our first years at least the appearance of a choice.  So, we’re giving them a limited number of the lessons in their second semester.  We cut all of our courses to one semester, rather than two semesters.  And we’ve cut them all to no more than four hours, so that we could make room in the spring of their first year, and then that’s the equivalent time for a part-time student.  And a lesson that gives them a perspective on either how to think about statutory analysis and interpretation, or how to think about different perspectives in law so that they can do a better job of problem-solving that goes beyond reading appellate cases.  So we are going to start giving our first-year law students a limited number of choices in the last part of their first year.  And I’m excited about it.  I went to a law school where I had an elective with limited choices my second semester of the first year.  And it kind of felt nice to have some control over what I was learning.”

Dean Berman says their students are provided a mentor, beginning in the 1L year.  “From day one, you are given a connection to the world of practice.  So if you have an interest in a particular area when you come into law school, we are guaranteeing you from literally the time you walk in the door that you will have a mentor from practice in that area who agrees to take you out to lunch several times during your first year, let you shadow them, give you advice, and basically give you a networking experience from the get-go that you don’t even have to work to create – we create it for you.  Then, in your second year, you do a supervised externship out in the real world of practice; you do a set of courses that are designed to build off a personal pathway that has to do with what your specific interests are.  And then in the third year you do a capstone project, either a public policy project or a project with a faculty member or a clinic.  And then we connect you through a dedicated alumni networking person to someone or some group of people in practice in the particular area you’re interested in.  So, by the time you graduate, the goal is that you will have had a set of experiences, opportunities, skills, and networks that are quite distinctive to a school of our size and stature in Washington, DC.”

Berman adds that beginning this fall, G.W. will introduce a comprehensive professional development program.  “We are working to create a comprehensive professional development program, beginning in the fall, where students in their first year will be able to both learn about areas of practice, and also be encouraged to think through skills that law schools historically have not focused on, such as, how do you actually do networking?  How do you do client development?  How do you think about the economics of law practice?  How do you start your own practice, if that’s what you want to do? And how do you structure your thinking about what a legal career could be?

Externships and internships are other arenas that help provide students with more practical experience and opportunities.  Rapoport explains what students should be seeking: “As I go around the country and I help on site inspections, more and more schools are expanding their externship programs.  And here’s what I think your listeners really want to find out: First, they want to find out, what sorts of things will I be doing, and how do you keep that quality control up? For example, you don’t want your externs for 14 weeks to make copies of documents – you want them to draft things, or you want them to attend hearings or attend meetings.  So you want to make sure that the faculty member supervising the externship is keeping on top of who’s actually holding the externship, or the internship, so that it is possible to make sure that a person is getting a real experience.  What you want is you want the feel for working in that environment.  And if someone is not trading information with the people holding the externships, and saying, ‘You know, we really need our students to do X, Y, and Z,’ then you could have 14 weeks of making copies and collating paper, and that would be bad.  So one of the things we have our students do is they have to do a weekly journal and a weekly timesheet, and I think a lot of law schools do that.  So, I can take a look at the timesheet, I can see what they’ve been doing, I can read their journal entries, and I can make sure that they’re doing the sorts of things for which academic credit should be granted.”

At Indiana University, Henderson says externships are being actively created.  “Now that’s the source of our strategic planning process currently.  We have spent… or managed to place roughly 60 of our students in externships related to prosecution or criminal defense work.  Students have a pretty high interest in government employment, and so we’ve managed to arrange quite a few externships in that area.  In particular, we’ve got an externship in Washington where students spend a semester in Washington, focusing on government agency-type work.  And the person who runs that is the former general counsel for the EPA.  So, we’re focusing on even more of that.”

G.W.’s Dean Berman explains their externship offerings.  “We provide a huge number of externship opportunities for students at the highest levels of government and public interest.  We also, in addition to clinics, are offering many opportunities for capstone experiences for students in the third year to work with think tanks, or to work with professors on testimony on Capitol Hill, or other sorts of public policy projects, advising governments abroad, things that will really force students to use their knowledge in practical ways.  And I think that schools should be constantly looking for more ways to do that.”

Getting real world experience while still in school is paramount.  Rapoport explains what employers are looking for the most, and your best way to meet those needs through your law school training.  “I think one of the reasons that we’re looking at skills training more in law school is that, for the people who thought they were going to go straight into large law firms, there’s been a sea change.  Large law firms aren’t hiring as much.  Clients aren’t paying for the work done by first- and second-year law students.  And so, the easy “in” that a lot of us thought we were going to have after we graduated from law school, you know, ‘go to a big law firm…they’ll teach you how to be a lawyer…don’t worry about it in law school’, that path is disappearing for pretty much anybody at any law school, including, you know, the 14 schools in the top five.  So, what employers really want now, more than anything else, is people who actually show they can do things that make them worth money.  And clinical legal education is the fastest way to that track.  It still takes a long time to learn how to advise a client.  But if you’ve never ever done it before you graduated from law school, it’s going to come as a real culture shock the first time you have to try to help a client solve a problem.”

Henderson says Indiana University is expanding on its entrepreneurship clinic, and they also currently have five active clinics.  Rapoport details UNLV’s model for clinical education: “The William S. Boyd School of Law has a particularly good model for clinical legal education.  The first thing is, is that our clinical professors are, first and foremost, professors.  They write scholarship, and they practice law.  So we have what’s called the ‘clinician scholar’ model.  We don’t put them on a separate track.  We don’t think of them as second-class citizens, in part because they’re not second-class citizens, and because they do everything that what we call ‘podium teachers’ do, except on top of that they’re representing live clients, which means they have real deadlines, and real issues that they are facing of an immediate nature.  So, one of the things we do differently is that we don’t try to segregate our clinical professors.  They teach substantive law courses; they teach clinics.  The second thing we do is we try to keep the student-faculty ratio in clinics very, very low, so that each of our students gets an appropriate level of attention.  And then, because the student-faculty ratio of our clinics is low, a lot of students may not get into clinics, and so for them we have the robust externship program, where they are placed into judicial and legislative jobs.  They are supervised both at that office and by a faculty member.  For example, I supervise the bankruptcy extern.  And so, they can see how things are done in what we call ‘the real world’, before they actually have to get out there and deal with the real world.”

With law schools implementing changes to increase the value for consumers, these costs also need to be absorbed.  And practice-based training is expensive, says Berman.  “One of the ironies of the criticisms of law schools over the last year or two is that people are simultaneously criticizing schools for having tuitions that are too high, and at the same time criticizing schools for not offering enough practice-based training, given that the practice-based training is the most expensive training that we do, because it requires the lowest student-faculty ratio.  So it is expensive to do this work, but I think it’s crucial.  So, I’ve made a tremendous investment both in creating the professional development course in the first year, creating some more clinical and quasi-clinical experiences, creating a dedicated mentoring and alumni networking coordinator, and also we’ve created various programs at the back end to help students work their way into jobs and move into jobs in the public sector.”

How are law schools absorbing the costs then?  Rapoport explains: “See, the sad part about the cost of legal education is that there’s only so much a law school can do about it.  If you look at a law school’s budget, at almost every law school 95% of that budget is fixed costs.  You’ve got overhead, you’ve got salaries, benefits, library costs, the cost of running an admissions office, the cost of running a career services office, the cost of running a registrar’s office.  There’s very little room in the budget, and when state schools get budget cuts, or when private schools lose money in their investments, then the people who have to make up the difference, unfortunately, are law students, who see their tuitions go up.  So we had to increase our tuition pretty dramatically a few years ago when the state dropped its support dramatically.  And there’s a tough balance… you want to provide a good legal education, you want to have services available to students.  But student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy; they are extremely hard to get rid of.  And law school can cost upwards of $100,000, sometimes upwards of $200,000.  So that’s why it’s very important for your listeners to look hard at the quality of the education they’re going to get, and the output, how well the graduates do.  David Van Zandt – he used to be the dean at Northwestern Law School – did a ballpark calculation, and he said, based on Northwestern’s tuition, if his graduates weren’t getting a job that paid at least $65,000 a year they would never pay off their loans.  And never is a really long time.  So I want your listeners to realize that a lot of the new costs in legal education…they’re paying for!  So they want to get a good bang for their buck.”

Given law school is an investment of both time and serious money, what should potential law students be looking for to best maximize their educational experience?  Dean Berman has this advice: “I think students should, when they’re contemplating law school, think about the set of experiences that they could have at various law schools, and how those experiences will enrich their thinking, their lives, and their skill sets.  I think often students simply look at the US News rankings, and assume that a school that is ranked two points higher than another school is somehow two points better than that other school.  But really, you need to think about, what are the sets of experiences, opportunities, which professors, which programs, which externships, which connections to practice am I going to have at this school versus that school? And it turns out that those kinds of networks, the meeting with a lawyer in practice, the externship at a major governmental agency, the connection with a large alumni network, the school that has speakers at it all the time who are people that you want to connect with…those matter so much more to your future job prospects and the fulfillment that you might have in a career, than whether you went to a school that was ranked one or two or five points higher than another school.”

Henderson emphasizes the importance of running the numbers as another factor for what students should consider.  “They should run the numbers to see if they really want to take on the costs, the time, and expense of law school.  Legal education is not what you do because you lack a better idea.  Because the debt is very real that you take on, and it’s a huge commitment of time, so they need to be doing their due diligence to see if law is really for them.  If it is, then they should think about the most cost-effective way or the most cost-effective opportunities for them that map onto their geographic preferences, that perhaps map onto their substantive preferences.  Corporate law pays a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily… it’s not for everyone; it’s fairly grueling.  I think that I’d like to see more people think through whether they really want to do that or not.  It’s really important to separate the realities from the images and the portrayals in the popular media.  I think that that’s key.  So some serious reflection, and going and talking to lots of people, and being sufficiently skeptical and, I think, sticking a pin to the, maybe the fantasy of what people think a legal career is, and adding some reality to it, by talking to lots of people, and questioning your assumptions.  It’s a really great career if you go into it with that mindset.”

One arena Lynch cites as a positive change in bridging the gap between school and practice is stipends.  “They’re usually called ‘bridge to practice programs’, where some of the top schools have been doing this for quite a long time.  But essentially, for students that aren’t able to find paid work right out of law school, but are still very interested in securing work down the road, the schools are giving out stipends.  They’re awarding various forms of grants to do either public interest work, sometimes to work in the private sector, in the idea that students can take these stipends or take these grants, and it allows them to sort of get a foot in the door somewhere where they really want to work, whether it’s in the private sector or if it’s with an NGO, or sometimes with a government agency at the state or federal level.  And it is a very effective way.  I think success rates vary in terms of how… what percentage of the graduates using these programs actually are able to translate it into fulltime legal employment at the conclusion of the grant period.  But I think it’s a very effective way, and it’s a very good response to see, on the part of the law schools, saying, you know, ‘We recognize the graduates are struggling to find work.  We want to give them every chance they can.  And if that means giving them a stipend and them getting their foot in the door somewhere, that’s really something that we should be doing.’  So we’ve seen a lot more schools pursuing this method.  And I think that part of it is it might be slightly disingenuous, because at the same time that it’s helping the graduate work for free somewhere, it’s also helping the law school boost their employment statistics.  But I think it’s still a very positive response to a very challenging job market.”

All our experts agree, the new requirements by the ABA for reporting accurate employment data, is a step in the right direction for providing potential students more detailed information.  Dean Berman adds that those statistics should still be looked at carefully, as a job not requiring a J.D. could still put that legal training to good use.  “People thinking of coming to law school may be tempted to discount those people, assuming that those people are waiting on tables, or doing something that is really not a job that you might want to go to law school to get.  But on the other hand, that category will also include entrepreneurs who have chosen to start a business, rather than practice law, and they may be using their legal background and their legal skills every day of the rest of their career.  And currently, the new statistics wouldn’t differentiate between those kinds of jobs.  So I think it will still be important for students to look behind that data, and try to get a sense of what the opportunities are that the school that they’re looking at will really provide them.”

And while the poor job market and education costs are posing challenges, Henderson says this will have a positive impact on legal education and the future job market.  “There’s a real opportunity here, and I think in the next 15 to 20 years we will see major innovations in legal education.  You know, legal education hasn’t really substantially changed in the last 80 to 90 years.  But it’s just untenable to think that we’re going to continue down the traditional path.  There’s really an opportunity here to shake up the hierarchy, and change hiring patterns for graduates, based upon the value-add of three years and $150,000 worth of law school tuition.  And so it’s really an exciting time.  It’s an opportunity to do something that really, really matters, to think about the way to educate the next generation of leaders and problem solvers, you know.  So, I’m pretty excited that this turmoil that we’re going through right now is actually going to lead to innovation and checking our assumptions against, you know… assumptions for what high quality legal education really is about.”

The tight job market and soaring tuition costs make it more important than ever to make sound, informed, cost-effective decisions when considering a law degree.  Law schools are innovating to give you a leg up and more practical skills training, to meet the increased demands of legal employment immediately following law school.  Really seek out schools that effectively meet your career goals, and know what those are.  Look beyond traditional curriculum for strong practice-based training, as well.  Factor in how you’ll meet your debt load.  And be realistic about the challenging legal job market.  Many law schools offer opportunities to strengthen your prospects.  Make sure to choose wisely to get the most from your education.

For more information, a transcript of the show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit LawSchoolPodcaster.com.  Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school.  This is Law School Podcaster; I’m Althea Legaspi.  Thanks for listening.  And stay tuned next time, when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.

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