Law School Curriculum Changes in the Future

An overflow crowd of legal educators packed a hotel ballroom and balcony on Friday to listen to speakers voice both support and skepticism for a call to overhaul the way lawyers are educated. The annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools here drew the first national audience for a movement that has been gathering momentum since last January, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report calling on law schools to teach more practical skills and to focus more on ethics and professional responsibility (The Chronicle, Jan. 19, 2007). The goal, the report said, was “to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical.” Since then, members of the foundation have been meeting with groups of law schools to try to put some of the changes it recommended into practice (The Chronicle, Dec. 20, 2007). The law-schools’ association has also started a new Web site to highlight and encourage curricular innovations.

While many people at the annual meeting spoke with excitement about the chance to “revolutionize” legal education, others questioned whether some of the proposed changes, particularly the emphasis on practical skills, were feasible, or even desirable. Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said 90 percent of Penn’s law students take courses in other disciplines, like business, communications, or health care, and will pursue diverse careers, some outside the practice of law. So he questioned whether the notion of teaching to a single profession makes sense for all schools. “I worry that a vision of professional education may be narrow when you look at what our graduates may be doing five or 10 years down the road,” he said.

Mary C. Daly, dean of St. John’s University School of Law, agreed. Being a lawyer at a small firm requires different skills from entering a corporate practice or doing pro-bono work, she suggested. “There isn’t a single profession—there are at least three, and I don’t have the resources to build three bridges,” she said. Many professors on her campus would rather see the school move toward a more academic, rather than practical, model, she said. Law faculty are typically rewarded more for publishing than for good teaching, and a law school’s prestige is often tied to its scholarly reputation. “There’s a tension between where Carnegie says we should be moving and where our faculty, especially the younger ones, says we should be moving,” Ms. Daly said. Tension isn’t necessarily bad, she added, suggesting that a hybrid strategy of closely integrating the theoretical and practical, approached incrementally might be best. “Maybe tension is part of the evolutionary process,” she said. Some questioned whether professors at research-oriented law schools are interested or even qualified to teach practical skills since many of them have not practiced in decades.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Katherine Mangan, January 7, 2008