Changing the Law School Curriculum:
Why It’s Needed and Suggested Changes That Will Benefit the Legal Industry
By: Marc J. Fagin, Esq.
A new legal landscape is emerging due to the slowdown in the economy. Law firm clients are reevaluating even long-standing relationships and demanding enhanced service at reasonable rates. In order to meet these increased demands, those who provide legal services must respond by offering clients more focused and extensively-trained human capital at an economical price. Law schools, too, must respond by better preparing law students for the rigors of legal practice in a private setting. Curriculum changes in each year of law school must be implemented to ensure that law firms are able to better match their needs with the talents and desires of incoming attorneys. Law schools cannot merely offer a variety of courses that teach legal principles in the abstract with little real world application.
Churning out graduates who receive stellar grades and pass the bar exam without practical experience fails to prepare the law graduate to make intelligent career decisions and fails to provide law firms, and subsequently their clients, with cost-effective talent. The suggested changes to law school curriculum found below will allow employers to hire graduates who understand the benefits and consequences of their career decisions and who will be more focused and better trained. As a result, these newly-minted attorneys will be more valuable to law firms and the costs of bringing junior attorneys up to speed will no longer be disproportionately borne by clients.
The addition of a first year “Awareness” course – to be taken in conjunction with other classes on basic common law principles such as Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Contracts, Real Property and Torts – is an essential first step to improving the current first year law school curriculum. The comprehensive Awareness course will introduce law students to guest speakers from a wide variety of legal backgrounds. Discussions would include the positives and negatives of being an attorney in different legal settings as well as the nature of working in specific practice areas (unpredictable hours for corporate attorneys, intense document review assignments for litigators, etc.). Guest speakers should come not just from the major disciplines of corporate, litigation and real estate; rather students should be taught by attorneys from disciplines they would customarily not be exposed to until their second or third years of law school, such as intellectual property, labor & employment, trusts & estates, ERISA, entertainment and tax. Speakers should explain the intricacies of their particular practice including outlining their day-to-day routine, describing the types of clients they represent and offering direction regarding potential career advancement in their given field. The speakers should also bring in the form documentation that they utilize on a regular basis (purchase agreements, pleadings, offering memoranda, etc.) and provide insights into the standard provisions in these materials as well as which clauses are often the most contentious and why. Broad exposure to varying legal disciplines during one’s first year of law school will better equip law students with the knowledge they need to make intelligent career decisions and allow them to better shape and focus their studies, and later their careers.
Alterations to traditional first and second year summer programs are another requisite step in meeting the demands of a new legal landscape. After their first year of law school, students should be offered the option of working directly with professors on select assignments or at governmental agencies or non-profit organizations. This will benefit students by offering them relevant training and real-world experience, as well as benefiting professors, governmental agencies and non-profits by providing a cost-effective and dedicated pool of talent. After the second year of law school, students should either be permitted to extend internships and continue working on existing projects of interest or apply for new opportunities, such as in law firms, corporations and other participating entities where they will have an opportunity to learn about a new area of practice. Participating entities benefit as well by receiving more educated and better trained students, resulting in cost savings that can be passed on to their clients.
The utilization of a variety of clinics and internships during the second year of law school, in addition to conventional law school courses, also aid in the preparation of students for the real world application of law. Again, this practical experience will result in better informed graduates with greater immediate human capital value. Although many law schools already offer such programs, clinics and internships should be better structured to enhance skills employed in the specific discipline studied. In addition to intensive lessons on research and drafting, carefully constructed clinics should also enhance learning through the use of mock depositions and witness interviews and court appearances. Internships should be offered by law firms of varying sizes, corporate legal departments, governmental agencies and non-profits. Similar to clinics, internships should be structured to enhance skills that will be utilized in the specific discipline in which the internship is focused. These intense courses of study will also allow students to experience working in multiple settings providing them with a better understanding of all of their options prior to choosing their first post law school employment opportunity. Participating law firms, corporations and organizations will benefit as well as they can use these settings to evaluate and entice top talent for future employment.
During the third year of law school, apprenticeships at participating entities will further arm students with practical experience that they can utilize upon graduation. In addition to enhancing practice area specific skills, these apprenticeships should include exposing students to client meetings and pitches, as well as allowing students access to document production and review. Implementing the suggested changes outlined above to all stages of law school curriculum will better prepare students to “pick their major” after their second summer thereby leading to a productive apprenticeship that hopefully results in a full-time associate job.
The inclusion of a first year “Awareness” course as well as alterations to the second and third year law school curriculum and first and second year summer programs are necessary steps for law schools to take in order to equip the next generation of attorneys with the focus and skills that will be required of them by future employers. By providing a structure that these organizations and their clients demand and through the implementation of these comprehensive curriculum changes, law schools will also benefit by increasing their ability to attract top talent, thereby ensuring their future success as well.