Pardon the Disruption: The second thing that needs to go—the law school model (Part 2)

December 12, 2013

Legal educationPrior to the Thanksgiving holiday, we discussed the not-so-novel proposition that the U.S. legal education system requires a healthy dose of reform. We also talked about IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law’s initiative to improve the law school model and suggested that even more radical changes may be necessary to fix the broken system. To that end, we pointed to the efforts being made at Harvard Medical School’s Cambridge Integrated Clerkship (CIC) as a good example of innovation in professional school education. In today’s post, we take principles from CIC and apply them to legal scholarship.

Before we do that, it’s worth first reminding ourselves that there are some things that law schools still do well. Law students are quickly taught how to “think like a lawyer,” which is a significant task considering that most of us don’t go through pre-law school life consciously analyzing problems to identify salient issues or exploit weaknesses in our adversaries’ positions. Law schools are also generally effective at teaching the core first-year curriculum. Regardless of their practice, most attorneys still understand the basic tenets of our criminal justice and torts systems, how real property is defined, and the function of the commerce clause. Law school also creates a common foundation of shared experiences that bind those in the profession.

The problem is that none of the above prepares students for the actual practice of law. Although some law schools dabble in the “experiential model” or feature “clinical” classes (where students generally just tackle imaginary legal issues), such efforts tend to be ineffective. One reason is that these activities provide students with only a snapshot of legal work—e.g., a student is provided with an already developed factual record, the procedural posture of the action, and relevant case law, and then must solely synthesize these materials to make persuasive arguments. This means that the student misses important lessons about building client relationships, legal research, motion practice, or even things like writing effective attorney correspondence.

Concerns about releasing unprepared lawyers into the market weren’t as pronounced decades ago, as law schools could count on practicing attorneys to bring recent graduates into the fold as apprentices until their skills were serviceable. But in today’s world, clients have little appetite for paying for new attorneys’ on-the-job training, so law firms are forced to swallow the costs associated with teaching new lawyers how to lawyer. Adapting to this environment means graduates must have the tools necessary to provide value right off the blocks.

The motivation behind CIC wasn’t that different. The program was started in part to address gaps in medical students’ knowledge caused by segmented exposure to patient care. To truly understand “the full spectrum of diagnostic reasoning and therapeutic decision making,” the CIC founders thought, medical students should understand treatment from presentation to outcome. To accomplish this, CIC employs a “longitudinal” approach to medical education.

With the assistance of supervisors, medical students create a panel of patients representing the most common yet wide-ranging issues treated by doctors. Throughout the year, students are involved with these patients through all phases of care, including scheduled appointments, surgeries, emergency care visits, and rehabilitations. During the week, teaching sessions are held where students present and discuss issues about their patients. Dr. David Hirsh, one of the program’s co-founders, told us that CIC was engineered to “advance the capacity of learning ability and competence, humanism and professionalism in equal measure.”

CIC’s results are impressive. Students in the program achieved as well or better than their counterparts on the board exams and did markedly better on clinical exams. Perhaps most interestingly, students showed an increased commitment to their patients. Dr. Hirsh says that he thinks “[CIC] works because it’s reforming relationships between students and the people that they’re serving, with their teachers, and the materials—because it lives, it matters, it’s not just being learned to pass a test.” An added benefit, he says: Students see each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

It’s not difficult to imagine how a similar longitudinal model could benefit law schools. After learning the first-year core curriculum, law students could enter clinical rotations during the summer after 1L. With attorney supervision, students would create a panel of clients facing legal issues covering a broad array of practice areas. 2L would be devoted to following this group of clients and taking electives designed to refine their knowledge about practice areas in which they’re interested. By 3L, students could identify the kind of law they’re interested in and dedicate time to that practice area with increased responsibility. They could also be assigned mentorship roles to 1L students.

Like medical students in the CIC program, adopting this system would help provide law students with the practical skills of an attorney and also teach them about the human aspects of the practice—e.g., interacting and forming meaningful relationships with clients. It could only work, however, if law students quickly established a solid knowledge base during their first year of school. We have thoughts about that too, and for PTD’s next post, Steve Woodrow, guest author and partner at our firm, will weigh in with recommendations on improving the 1L core curriculum.