Many people asking this question point to the medical school model, suggesting that law schools should adopt one (or two) years of clinical rotations, perhaps followed by additional years of residency. I would not adopt that model wholesale. For one thing, it is far too expensive for the legal profession. Medical education rests upon enormous payments from Medicare, private insurance, government research grants, and private research funding, plus hefty tuition. Medicare alone contributes $9.1 billion a year to teaching hospitals, which helps pay for resident salaries and teaching costs. We don't have that kind of government support or private insurance in law.
But that shouldn't stop us from making legal education more responsive to clients. There are solutions that lie within our grasp, some of which borrow from less well known corners of medical education. I'll limit this post to my first four suggestions.
The first step is simply to embrace client needs as a measuring stick for curriculum decisions. That's a surprisingly radical notion in legal education. We talk sometimes about meeting student needs, and we reflect other times on employer demands. We plot constantly about how to raise our US News ranking. But we rarely ask directly, does this course/program/pedagogical method maximize the value we are providing to future clients? If we candidly examined the law school curriculum from that perspective, we might scratch our heads at many of the things we do. Equally important, we might be forced to admit that we don't have a clue what clients want or which pedagogies address those needs--and we might be forced to find out.
The second step is to bring clients into the curriculum. One of the best features of medical school, in my opinion, is that students practice patient interviews and meet real patients during their very first year. Outsiders, including legal educators, often talk about medical school as two years of classroom instruction followed by two years of clinical rotations. That's true in a very general sense, but medical schools learned long ago that students learn basic science better when they feel clinical context at the same time. Besides, the point of all the classroom training (in law or medicine) is to serve clients. Why not let students meet clients right off the bat?
I would add a client-contact course to the first year of law school, even if one of the traditional doctrinal courses has to move to the second year. This course, like the ones taught in medical schools, would allow students first to practice client interactions with individuals assuming client roles. Medical schools often use students from the university's theatre department or moonlighting actors for these exercises.
During the second part of the client-contact course, I would involve students in client intake at appropriate organizations; legal aid and public defenders' offices often use law students in this role. I would also introduce the students to real clients from other areas of law. Bring a GC to class to talk about what she expects from outside firms. Invite a real estate developer who will talk about his experience with lawyers. Include a personal injury plaintiff and a small business owner who defended against a discrimination claim; there are dozens of client categories to choose from. Introducing students to clients will give their other classroom work context, keep their eyes focused on the purpose of all this legal education, and introduce them to a wide variety of practice areas.
These courses would cost money, but they would not be big-ticket items. The payoff, furthermore, would be significant: students would relate their entire legal education, from the very first day, to the clients we ultimately serve.
Third, I would seek new models to add hands-on professional work to legal education. There are ambitious ideas like Bradley Borden and Robert Rhee's proposal for a law school firm. I can imagine smaller initiatives involving partnerships between law schools and particular employers. While pursuing these ideas, I would also modestly expand our in-house clinical offerings. The in-house clinics are valuable because of the intense supervision and opportunities for reflection that students receive. I don't think students need that degree of supervision full-time for a year, but a single 4-credit experience sets students up for deeper learning in other practice experiences. I have a lot more I could say about workplace experience, clinics, and their relationship to doctrinal education, but this paragraph is the short form.
Fourth, I would rethink the teaching of every doctrinal course. The case method has its place, but not in every law school class. And even in the first year, where learning to read cases and statutes should remain a primary focus, there are ways to make the curriculum more client centered. One of my very creative colleagues begins his fall-semester legal writing course by asking his 1L students to read a 37-page stock purchase agreement to determine whether the purchaser has certain rights against the seller. As often happens in real life, the answer to this question appears within the document itself. My colleague asks the students to work in teams, and they attack the document with great enthusiasm. At the end of class, he makes sure that all of the students have discovered the correct answers. Before the next class each student must compose an email explaining this answer to a hypothetical partner in his or her firm.
This exercise occurs in a legal writing class (and, yes, in the very first week of law school), but it could have been assigned in courses on contracts, mergers, or environmental law (the contractual dispute relates to the costs of hazardous waste remediation). Why do we assign so many cases in law school and so few documents of other kinds? My colleague is not the only professor innovating this way; in fact, I know contracts, mergers, and environmental law colleagues who are doing some equally creative things. We need to spread this type of work much more widely within the law school curriculum.
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Those are my first four ideas for creating more client-centered law schools. Since you know me by now, you can guess that I have a lot more suggestions. A few of the others are (a) academic prerequisites to law school admission; (b) upper-level "uncasebooks" that teach the law without appellate opinions; (c) courses on law practice management and trends in the business of law; (d) law practice shadowing opportunities; (e) introductions to more of the technologies used in law practice; and (f) requiring every full-time faculty member and top-level administrator to demonstrate ongoing proficiency in the rules of professional responsibility. (Ha! Slipped that last one in. But I'm serious. As a professor who occasionally does social science research, I have to take certification courses on research ethics every three years. Just as researchers should be current with the ethical principles of human subjects research, faculty who teach professionals should be fully conversant with the rules governing the profession.)
All of these suggestions revolve around the central question: How can we lay the best foundational education for professionals who will serve clients? The clients will vary enormously in their characteristics and needs, but they will all rely upon their lawyers for critical support.
How will we pay for these changes? Not through increased tuition. I would ask all tenured faculty to recognize the disproportionate amount of time we have devoted to research during the last twenty years and to "give back" some of that time by spending a disproportionate amount of time on pedagogic reform over the next three years. Going forward, I would reduce the amount of time and money we devote to research rather than teaching. I strongly support academic research; despite its critics, research too benefits clients and society. But there were many law professors who produced outstanding scholarship before 1980; indeed, their work still influences us. Those professors generated their scholarship with heavier teaching loads, less research support, and no computers. I think we can match those standards today--and even retain our computers.