Are Law School Curriculums Preparing Students to Succeed?

By Martin Pritikin

It is a fundamental question—do law students graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive as lawyers? The answer, according to many law school graduates and legal employers, is no.

Forty years ago, in a survey of mid-career lawyers, two-thirds said their legal education had been “not helpful” or “played no role” in their ability to develop critical practice skills like interviewing, counseling clients, and negotiating. Two-fifths said law school failed to train them in effective legal writing or oral communication skills.

Decades later, not much had changed. In a 2009 national study, half of those who had graduated seven years earlier felt their law schools did not prepare them well for their legal careers, and three in five felt it was too theoretical and unconcerned with real life practice. Notwithstanding the pressure to focus more on practical skills after the Great Recession, in a survey of Class of 2013 graduates, seven out of eight responded that legal education needs to undergo significant changes to better prepare future attorneys.

The impressions of legal employers are no more favorable. In a 2009 survey by LexisNexis, when asked if law schools taught the practical business skills needed to practice law in today’s economy, 90 percent of lawyers said no. In a similar survey from 2015, 95 percent of hiring partners and associates believed recently graduated law students lacked key practical skills at the time of hiring.

So what do legal employers want? According to a 2014 focus group study, firms value “soft skills”—like attention to detail, work ethic, and the ability to communicate effectively with varying audiences—at least as much as legal research and writing. Similarly, a 2012 National Conference of Bar Examiners job analysis found that professionalism and communication skills were more significant and widely utilized than most substantive legal knowledge.

To the extent that professionalism and interpersonal skills are taught in law schools, it is typically through clinics and externships. On this front, there has been some recent improvement, but it is still not nearly enough. Between 2005 and 2013, the average number of experiential courses (clinics, externships, and simulation courses) taken per upper-division student increased nearly 60 percent, but to just over two per student. And between 2005 and 2017, the number of law schools requiring or guaranteeing a clinic placement increased fivefold, but that was still just one in three.

Even fewer law schools prepare students for the technological, economic, and societal changes affecting the profession. Many schools still teach students how to conduct legal research using books, although few employers use them. Even providing training in Westlaw or Lexis Nexis does not address the panoply of free web-based research platforms. Also, students are rarely taught business skills, let alone exposed to important developments like limited scope representation, the encroachment of accounting firms, or the impact of group legal service plans.

So why aren’t law schools doing more? According to a white paper by the Christensen Institute, law schools, more so than other incumbents, face challenges disrupting from within in large part because tenured and tenure-track faculty members “play a significant role in law school governance. From that locus of control, they tend to support the traditional pedagogical model, one under which they were successful, and to block changes that will adversely impact the status quo.” This assessment comports with my own experience at a traditional law school. While a few tenure-based professors embraced change, many were fearful of or unwilling to go out of their comfort zone.

There are institutional impediments as well. The ever-looming U.S. News and World Report ranking algorithms reward academic prestige more than pedagogical innovation. Law schools must also ensure that their graduates pass the bar exam, and there is a pervasive but empirically unsupported assumption that spending time preparing graduates for law practice is at odds with this goal.

The regulatory environment matters, too. The ABA standards mandate only a single two-unit course in professional responsibility; a first-year and upper-division writing experience; and, since 2014, six units of experiential courses, which accounts for just 8 percent of the total. (Law schools opposed an alternate proposal that would have mandated 15 units). The standards also require that law faculty be granted tenure or its effective equivalent—which, as noted above, is one of the main impediments to greater curricular innovation.

My experience presents a sort of natural experiment. In contrast with the resistance to reform I faced at my traditional school, within weeks of taking the helm at an online school, the full-time faculty willingly embraced an ambitious initiative to revamp the entire required curriculum. Our program now includes at least one practice document drafting exercise in each upper division course; presentation of a business plan in the “Future of Law Practice” course; a family law practicum capstone in the final year; and 15 overall units of experiential learning.

So what can traditional schools do to change? Modify their tenure standards (at least going forward) so curricular innovation is an express criteria for faculty promotion, and implement a post-tenure review mechanism to promote accountability. Faculty should be encouraged to use their sabbaticals to gain practice experience rather than just do research. Law schools attached to universities can work with their schools of education, business and/or IT to incorporate relevant concepts or approaches into their curriculum.

But it’s not all on schools. The ABA should mandate more practice-oriented content, thereby forcing faculties’ hands. U.S. News should devalue the “reputation” score, or at least modify it to focus on reputation for innovation. Firms should buck the trend of hiring based on the academic prestige of applicants’ alma maters. (One New York firm notably recently instituted a “no Ivy League” policy, finding them not “hungry” enough.) And prospective students should let schools know that relevance to practice is a priority in deciding where to attend.

These steps won’t entirely eliminate the problem of preparing law students for practice. But they will be a much needed step in the right direction.

 

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Martin Pritikin is the Dean of Concord Law School at Purdue University Global (concordlawschool.edu), the nation’s first fully online law school. He can be reached at martin.pritikin@purdueglobal.edu.


 

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