Pardon the Disruption: The second thing that needs to go—the law school model (Part 1)

November 21, 2013

Legal educationIn our inaugural post, The first thing that needs to go—the billable hour, we suggested that firms use alternative fee arrangements and throw out the traditional billable hour. (We’ve gotten some pretty diverse feedback, ranging from positive responses from in-house attorneys to snarky comments from our counterparts at defense firms. Others have asked us to explain more about valuing lawsuits, so we’ll write about that topic again later.)

In this two-part post, we discuss ways to fix the broken law school model.

Talk has been swirling for a while about the need to overhaul the legal education system. JD candidates crossing the stage in recent years have exited with a hefty tab and a degree that guarantees few job opportunities. And despite almost a decade of excess supply, some are claiming that law schools are running out of cash. (See “80% to 85% of ABA law schools are currently losing money.”) Meanwhile, the job creators continue to moan that newly minted attorneys have few practical skills and thus require a tremendous investment in their training.

It’s worth pausing on this final point. Something is unmistakably wrong with a network of professional schools that consistently fails to produce graduates with the skills necessary to work in that profession. It’s so bad that some firms are creating their own fellowships to teach new lawyers how to Pardon the Disruption quote boxpractice. (See “Calling All Unemployed Law Grads: Greenberg is Hiring.”) Former law professor-turned-President Obama has even suggested that a cost-benefit analysis weighs in favor of scrapping the third year of law school altogether. On the other end of the spectrum, some critics argue that law schools should tack on a fourth year under the reasoning (flawed in our opinion given the boredom of 3L) that three years isn’t enough to learn how to lawyer.

At least some law schools are trying to change for the better. Here in Chicago, our friends over at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law have started a new initiative called “1L Your Way.” If you can overlook the glaring Burger King reference, the program looks promising. Starting in 2014, Chicago-Kent will allow up to one-third of the entering class to forego the traditional 1L core curriculum. Instead, these students will substitute one core class in their first year for an “experiential” learning component that includes clinical rotations at Chicago-Kent’s in-house (and revenue-generating) practice group. The rotations start during the second semester of 1L and students select three 4.5-week-long rotations from seven clinical areas.

The idea behind the program, which Chicago-Kent Dean Harold Krent says is “inspired by the medical school model,” makes sense. Students get hands-on experience almost immediately. They get to sample various practice areas early on to help determine where their predilections lie. Having gained some experience and discovering what they’re interested in, students can then hone their skills with targeted coursework, externships, and summer jobs. That’s a much more appealing package to potential employers. Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Heather Harper, who runs Chicago-Kent’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, explained that the emphasis on “skills-based coursework” is a reaction to the marketplace. “Clients are not particularly interested in paying for the training for young lawyers,” she said.

Dean Krent anticipates that 1L Your Way will be “oversubscribed” within the first year. He has good reason to be optimistic—it’s a great idea, and will surely differentiate those graduates from the rest of the pack.

But law schools could go a step further in prepping their students to enter the workforce. Law students could be enlisted to work on meaningful and ongoing engagements with clients from the get-go. A similar “longitudinal” model of education is succeeding for students in the Harvard Medical School-Cambridge Integrated Clerkship (CIC) program, and in part two of this post we talk about how a modified version could work for law schools.