ABA Journal

The New Normal

4 steps for reinventing legal education

By Luke Bierman

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Luke Bierman

Luke Bierman.

As lawyers who also are legal educators, we must accept that the new normal is here to stay – a world with decreased law school enrollment, increased student debt, a tight job market, and changing priorities in preparing students to be lawyers.

Hoping for the past to return while clinging to our current model of educating new lawyers does little to improve our deeply challenging situation. We need to be creative, bold and prescient, with the courage of our convictions.

The longer we drag our feet, the greater the gap between the skills that are needed now in new attorneys and the training that traditional law schools provide them. This chasm undermines the credibility of our nation’s law schools, and threatens to waste an entire generation of promising legal talent. Legal education hasn’t changed much in a century – reinvention is long past due.

The American Bar Association’s task force on the future of legal education came to a similar conclusion just last year, calling for sweeping changes to law school curriculum, pricing and overall value delivered to students. But what might a real reinvention of legal education look like? How do we go beyond theory and reconceive the day-to-day experience we provide our students who are making a huge investment of time and money in their education? There’s been a lot of talk about the need for substantive change, but little about the details of how to accomplish it. What kinds of skills does a 21st century lawyer need to succeed and how do we adapt the traditional strengths of legal education to develop those skills? How can we adjust our tuition and business models to be responsive to cost and debt questions while retaining the positive attributes of professional education? What is the proper balance among teaching, scholarship and service? How can we accomplish change in an enterprise that is built around stability and conformity for its legitimacy? These few questions are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as the perceived need for change grows. We must focus on a framework for how to make this transformation happen.

There are four critical elements to overhauling legal education, and they must be integrated seamlessly and strategically in the law school experience.

• First and foremost, we need a redesigned curriculum that is rigorous and highly focused on the realities of being a lawyer today and tomorrow, not yesterday – we can’t focus only on fixing what we didn’t like about our legal education. We must do better in the classroom to actively engage students in developing the core legal knowledge, skills and competencies they need for the workplace. Beyond foundational law courses, students need more and better training in writing, business skills, project management, technology, data analytics, leadership development, and communication. These qualities are coveted by law firms and enable lawyers to blossom from narrow technicians into strategic thinkers, deal makers, problem solvers and community leaders. But in most law schools today, students simply do not get opportunities to learn these skills early enough, if at all.

• Second, and closely aligned with the first, is an intense focus on experiential learning. It’s not enough to cram an abbreviated clerkship or internship into the summer months or as a component of a busy semester and pretend that is enough. Instead, we need full-time, course-connected legal residencies to become a staple of the law school experience. We need to require hands-on learning through partnerships with law firms, judges, nonprofits and government agencies – where students can learn by doing in immersive and iterative programs. We also need students to test themselves in simulations led by practicing attorneys and take part in greater numbers in clinics, trial advocacy, moot court, and mock trial programs. The experiential dimensions of legal education should be integrated and strategically sequenced with rigorous courses from day one to graduation, providing students with increasing levels of responsibility for real legal work at each stage of their development.

• Third, and also connected to the first and second, we need more involvement from practicing attorneys and judges. These experts are essential to one of the key components of a successful law school experience – the development of extensive personal and professional networks. Rather than hoping that students will carve out a career path on their own, we should provide them with professional advisers and mentors, including faculty, attorneys, career consultants, and executive coaches who counsel them on course selections, practical experiences and custom pathways to career success. We also should provide workshops and programs that encourage networking and provide exceptional professionalism training for students in areas of ethics and leadership. Lawyers and judges have a vested interest in partnering with law schools – it is, after all, their chance to shape the legal talent pipeline for decades to come.

• Finally, with the average debt of private law school graduates reaching nearly $125,000, the fourth critical element to an overhaul is cost – we must make law school more affordable. Increasing scholarship and fellowship opportunities is part of the answer, but it’s not enough on its own. If we are really serious about the long term best interests of students, and thus their future clients, we need to lower the tuition and guarantee that it will not increase for the entire course of study. One way to do that is to realign the curriculum so that all students can accelerate their studies and graduate in less than the typical three years.

These proposals for reforming law school may seem aggressive, but this is not a time for incremental adjustments; it is a time for bold action. It is easy and perhaps even self congratulatory to rely on the old saw that it’s just too hard to make serious adjustments. Indeed, what we do, we do well. We have a century of experience telling us that we have prepared lawyers quite well and significant change is not warranted.

But a century of success invokes the prescription given to the law school deans at their annual ABA confab by Andy Rosen, the chair of Kaplan, Inc. Rosen congratulated the group for their successes and suggested continued success may be the biggest impediment to survival. He pointed to the Washington Post’s record of success in journalism as precisely the prescription for failure in a new age. We just need to read the recent history of the closure of Sweet Briar College for further confirmation of success leading to failure.

The school where I serve as Dean has taken to heart that success is being redefined by transformation around us. Elon Law has adopted a new curriculum that addresses each and every one of the elements discussed above, and the faculty worked hard to adopt these changes in less than six months. Focusing on society’s growing mantra of better, quicker and more affordable; a mantra recently invoked by AALS President-Elect Kellye Teste at the AALS annual meeting; we redesigned the law school experience for the 21st century, providing logically sequenced instruction, full time experience, highly integrated student engagement with the practicing bar and great value all in a 2½ year experience with a 20% reduction in cost. Elon Law captures the traditional strengths of legal education and adds modern learning to a student’s preparation. It is not the wave of the future – it is here and now. This is proof that core changes can be made, but they require commitment, creativity and courage.

In preparing its report on the future of legal education, the ABA’s special task force worked quickly, noting that “the urgency of the problems and the serious threats to public confidence demanded rapid action.” Our law schools can – and must – keep that momentum going by making bold but thoughtful innovation our guiding vision and acting on it now.

Luke Bierman is dean and professor of law at Elon University Law School in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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