Consensus emerging that law school model ‘is not sustainable’ by Karen Sloan

Posted By on October 22, 2010

Consensus emerging that law school model ‘is not sustainable’

Karen Sloan

October 20, 2010

What will legal education look like in five or 10 years?

It will be more internationally focused, rely more heavily on technology and will incorporate more leadership and businesses skills, if the influential group of about 100 educators and law leaders who met recently to discuss the matter are to be believed.

Those themes emerged during the two-day FutureEd 2 conference last weekend at Harvard Law School — the second in a series of three conferences sponsored by Harvard and New York Law School devoted to generating ideas and consensus about how to make legal education more relevant in light of the changing legal industry.

“The good news for change today is that there is a pretty widespread feeling that the old model of legal education is not sustainable,” said David Wilkins, director of Harvard’s Program on the Legal Profession. “The overall goal of the conference is to gather information about what’s actually happening on the ground and then encourage people to think creatively, but also concretely and specifically about where to go from there.”

The FutureEd conference wasn’t the only forum for debate about the direction of legal education. Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law last month released the findings of a multi-day conference it held in the spring that brought together judges, practitioners and professors to discuss everything from the usefulness of 1L curriculum to the development of comprehensive post-graduate attorney training programs. The University Maryland School of Law held a conference in April looking at changes in the legal profession — and addressing those shifts within the legal academy. Similarly, the University of Wisconsin Law School will host a two-day conference next weekend called Legal Education Reform after Carnegie: Bringing-Law in-Action into the Law School Classroom. (The influential 2007 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching concluded that law schools do not do a good job of preparing student for the practice of law or helping them develop ethics and professional identity.)

Despite all the interest in reforming and updating legal education, it’s clear that building a consensus on change is difficult, given that different law schools have different missions, and educators and administrators have different priorities and interests. Some participants in the FutureEd conference focused on expanding the breadth of legal education and incorporating more elements, while others emphasized the need to make law degrees more affordable. Still other attendees highlighted the need for more ethics instruction, while another contingent stressed the need to better measure learning outcomes. Many agreed that there will be greater diversification and specialization among law schools in the future, particularly if the American Bar Association adopts student learning outcome measures that require schools to define their individual missions.

“These are big questions and there are a lot of different constituencies,” said Elizabeth Chambliss, the co-director of New York Law School’s Center for Professional Values and Practice. “There is a sense that the legal sector market is rapidly changing, and law schools are going to be facing some pressing challenges in the immediate future.”

The organizers of FutureEd sought to move past simply discussing the issues by having attendees propose ways to update and improve legal education — a setup Chambliss characterized as a “decentralized think tank.”

Thirty proposals were submitted on topics including the use of technology and distance learning, different ways to incorporate practical skills and simulations into curricula, the importance of providing a global perspective on legal issues, looking beyond the LSAT in admissions and forming tighter partnerships between schools and practitioners.

After presenting their proposals, conference attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss the ideas on the table, find common links and form collaborations. The hope, Chambliss said, was to whittle the proposals into between five and eight well-defined projects that can be implemented or at least researched in the coming months. The final FutureEd conference is scheduled for April in New York, and that gathering will focus on the progress or results from the pilot programs underway.

For example, a broad collation of educators who are using or experimenting with distance learning agreed to put together a report on the state of technology-enhanced education that will serve as a resource for law school faculty, administrators and the ABA.

“Distance learning is growing underneath law schools,” Concord Law School Dean Emeritus Barry Currier said. Concord offers only online courses. “The students coming to us will have experience with distance learning and most will have liked it. They will wonder why we aren’t using it when it has been effective.”

Wilkins said he was pleased that the conference addressed both large-scale shifts in the legal profession while also focusing on smaller reforms that can get off the ground in the immediate future.

He noted that conference organizers had to turn way about 100 people due to lack of space. “About a third of the people in that room were from outside the U.S. We had clinical faculty, professional development people, practitioners, clients and a few students. This wasn’t just the same six people talking to each other.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.

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