ABA Journal

New Normal

Only law schools that tackle costs, graduate client-centered lawyers will survive—a dean’s view

By Jeremy Paul

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Dean Jeremy Paul

As calls for reform of legal education continue to suggest a variety of directions, one thing is certain. Law schools will be expected to do more with less. We often hear legal educators highlight tensions within the loud criticisms aimed at today’s law schools. Critics tell us that costs are too high compared to the expected earnings of many law school graduates. They are. Critics also say that law schools are insufficiently sensitive to the realities of contemporary law practice in which lawyers must be fast as well as smart, client-centered as well as thorough, and business-savvy as well as legally sophisticated. How, our colleagues often wonder, are law schools supposed to provide additional professional instruction while simultaneously slowing tuition increases? We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we are sure of one thing. Only those law schools that tackle this challenge directly are likely to thrive.

Northeastern has offered what remains a novel solution to today’s challenges for 45 years. Our Cooperative Legal Education Program—through which students alternate quarters as full-time students with quarters spent in legal workplaces at the start of their 2L year—is based on the simple principle that law schools cannot train future leaders without help. We don’t mean to highlight here the crucial role of financial contributions (although we are as grateful as anyone to receive them). We refer instead to the need to mobilize every constituency within the legal community on behalf of producing graduates uniquely trained to succeed in professional life. The best legal education will be built on enlisting students, faculties, and the entire profession. The rest is just commentary.

By “enlisting” students we mean involving them from day one in the project of assessing the meaning of their professional career. We provide each student a career coach upon arrival. We stress that career planning is as important to the students’ future as issue-spotting or memo writing. From the moment they begin law school, we focus them on the ethical dimensions of law practice. Every first-year student also participates in a structured team (“law office”) effort to solve a real-world problem posed by a public interest organization. Above all, we enlist each student in repeatedly selecting co-op placements and interviewing for these positions. By graduation, the crucial task of self-presentation is a matter of second nature.

We enlist faculty through our novel assessment process. We pride ourselves on academic rigor while also embracing the idea that professional practice involves far more than the analytical skills reflected in traditional grading. Accordingly, we require each faculty member to prepare extensive evaluations of each student’s work along a variety of dimensions.

These evaluations, which appear on students’ formal transcripts, signal our faculty’s time-consuming investment in honing student performance through an evaluative process that more thoroughly prepares our students for post-graduate success.

Above all, our co-op model enlists hundreds of seasoned professionals in training our students. We send each student off-campus, often outside Boston and increasingly overseas to gain four distinct full-time work experiences in a diverse array of professional settings, including courts, law firms, legal service organizations, nonprofit institutions, government agencies and corporations. Students perform lawyering tasks while being exposed to core questions concerning the nature and structure of the profession:

• “How does my co-op employer secure funding to complete its work?”

• “What skills are valued in this workplace?

• “What is the organization chart, and where do lawyers fit?”

• “What social role does this organization fill, and whom does it serve?

Students bring these lessons back to the classroom, inspiring discussions as they compare their practical experiences to the day’s assignment. As workplaces change, our students’ experiences are automatically updated without our needing approval from a curriculum committee. And, although we treasure the clinical experiences we provide, the assistance we receive from co-op employers enables us to impart far greater practical experience than could ever be available via clinics alone.

Let us be clear that we don’t offer the co-op model as the solution to law school’s high costs. We ask readers to send us suggestions on how this critical problem can be addressed. Indeed, the mere act of penning a column such as this one should remind every law dean in America how much our world has changed.

Gone are the days when careful reasoning based on commonly understood propositions constituted sound advocacy on behalf of clients or successful public commentary. Decision-makers and audiences now expect argumentation based on painstakingly gathered data, data that too few lawyers are trained to utilize and too few institutions have financial incentive to gather. The future will belong to law schools that move swiftly to remedy these deficiencies.

But, as we see it, the nearly full year of practice experience our students receive means that they are effectively gaining four years of training for the price of three. Qualitative evidence suggests our model offers students advanced professional maturation and accelerated skills acquisition. We will soon complete our broad survey of graduates and employers and we anticipate it will demonstrate our model’s quantitative superiority in terms of success in the workplace. In the meantime we offer this time-tested model as one that remains “new” within the legal academy. We invite readers to visit and learn more about NULaw.

Jeremy Paul is dean of Northeastern University School of Law and teaches constitutional law, property and jurisprudence. In addition to his long-term career in teaching, Dean Paul has served as a law clerk to Judge Irving R. Kaufman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and as professor-in-residence at the appellate staff of the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He came to Northeastern from the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he was a member of the faculty for 23 years and dean from 2007-2012. He has also taught at the University of Miami and at Boston College Law School. Dean Paul has served on the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Bar Foundation and the Advisory Board of the Connecticut Law Tribune, and is a former Board Member of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union.

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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