Legal Educators Grapple With How to Meet a Changing Profession's Needs

January 06, 2012

Seismic changes in the legal profession and a growing skepticism about the value of a law degree have presented law schools with unprecedented challenges, according to speakers at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.

Legal educators spoke on Thursday with a mixture of defiance, irritation, and chagrin at the drumbeat of criticism that has been volleyed at law schools as students' debt loads have soared and job prospects have shrunk.

"We as law faculty have to acknowledge that we've had a great 40-year run," Thomas D. Morgan, a professor of law at George Washington University said during a daylong session on changes in the legal profession and the implications for legal education. More than 3,000 legal educators are attending this week's meeting.

Mr. Morgan, author of The Vanishing American Lawyer (Oxford University Press, 2010), said that not only have professors enjoyed high salaries and generous benefits, they have also been able to pursue their academic interests, confident that the students they graduate would receive training and mentoring from the firms that hire them.

Times have changed, he said. For one thing, there are a lot more lawyers competing for far fewer jobs. In 1971, the nation had around 300,000 lawyers, while today, there are more than a million, he said. Legal problems are more complex, and more likely to require a deep understanding of issues that transcend state and national boundaries, he added.

Advances in technology have allowed clients to fill out wills or other legal documents by themselves online and have prompted law firms to turn over basic jobs to nonlawyers or to lawyers overseas who are less expensive to hire.

Clients are increasingly refusing to pay for the training of first- and second-year associates, several speakers pointed out, with as many as 25 percent of clients insisting on contracts that preclude first- and second-year associates from billing for their work.

Critiquing the Critics

But some speakers chafed at the idea that law schools should be redesigning their curricula to meet the needs of "biglaw"—large firms that serve mostly corporate clients.

Thomas Harvey, a 2009 graduate of Saint Louis University School of Law, said much of the public critique of legal education, including a recent series of articles in The New York Times, is based on the assumption that "law school is a trade school that should be producing factory-ready lawyers" for large firms. In fact, according to the Association for Legal Career Professionals, only 14 percent of 2010 law-school graduates went on to work for such firms, which have been scathing in their critiques of the skills of young associates.

"Why is it that the failure of a large corporate firm to adequately train its lawyers is the fault of law schools?" Mr. Harvey asked, to a smattering of applause.

If law schools were to retool their third years to respond to criticism from big law firms, as many people have suggested, courses like the one he took in critical-race theory might be eliminated, he said. That course inspired him to co-found a program called ArchCity Defenders Inc. to represent indigent clients.

Several speakers who favor more hands-on training said law schools have done a lousy job communicating the steps they've taken in recent years to give students practical training.

James E. Moliterno, a professor of law at Washington and Lee University, described how the Virginia institution's School of Law overhauled its third-year curriculum, which now requires all students to participate in simulated or real practice. Students might learn bankruptcy law, for instance, by representing a simulated client with a failing business.

Jane H. Aiken, a professor of law at Georgetown University, described how students enrolled in her law school's clinics have learned from experiences as diverse as studying transgender issues in Western India to collaborating with medical students to study respiratory problems afflicting residents of polluted neighborhoods in Washington.

Still, much more should be done to make legal education relevant during a turbulent time in the industry, speakers said.

Two of the biggest impediments cited were U.S. News & World Report rankings that favor schools that spend more money per student and accreditation requirements that critics say discourage innovation.

"The jolt to the legal profession is real," said Mr. Morgan, "and the world is not going back to the way it was."