The Law School Firm

By: Stacy Caplow, Professor of Law and Director of Brooklyn Law School’s Clinical Education Program

Reforming legal education has been a staple of discussion by the bench, bar and the academy forever.  Ever since the Carnegie Report kicked off the most recent round of conversations, conferences on the subject have abounded, attempts to redesign the law school curriculum have been proposed, and in a few instances, actually implemented.  As recently as last week the ABA adopted a resolution calling for law schools to “implement curricular programs intended to develop practice ready lawyers.  This halfhearted push from the practicing bar is insufficiently muscular to produce much change unless and until lawyers make practice-readiness a hiring priority and send that message to the law schools. 

It’s encouraging, therefore, when law professors, particularly non-clinical teachers, recognize the value of making meaningful connections between the academy and practice.  The recent article by my colleague, Brad Borden, and his co-author, Robert Rhee, entitled The Law School Firm, tries to “stimulat[e] the debate” about alternatives to traditional legal education.

Their proposal is that law schools establish a self-sustaining law firm where its students will receive training and whose lawyers will engage in the intellectual life of the law school.  The article outlines a model and then raises lots of unanswered, and maybe unanswerable, logistical, practical, financial, and ethical questions that would need to be resolved.  They don’t pretend to know the answers but are agents provocateurs, pushing the possibilities to new extremes.

My first reaction was to be pleased that a non-clinical colleague was concerned enough about the development of lawyering competencies to send his ideas out into the world and was happy to facilitate its circulation by posting its link on the clinic list serv.   My second reaction was to think, “Isn’t this what clinics do already, but on the margins and on the cheap?  Why not just build up the clinics, and build better bridges to the faculty.”  My third thought was, “Isn’t this model privileging a business practice that will generate income at the expense, perhaps of the traditional social justice mission of most clinics?”

Then, I reread the article and saw the model’s real potential:  It proposes a true collaboration between theory and practice, something that gets a lot of lip service but not much actualization. It identifies many issues that would have to be resolved and many choices that would have to be made, all of which are complicated.  But the proposal is rooted in some very solid values that include collaboration, experimentation, and entrepreneurship.   It’s also based in reality, not the slo-mo law practice of clinics.  At every level it argues for the mutual benefits for faculty, practitioners, and students, as well as the mutual respect for all contributions to the enterprise.

Like most big ideas, anyone could find fault or cite all of the practical obstacles to realization.  But in a gentle and respectful tone, the article challenges us to think in a new way about the time-honored critiques of legal education.  Perhaps some law school out there will take the bold step of implementing some or even all of this model.

One Response

  1. Stacy’s description of The Law School Firm conjures images of the late Gary Bellow encouraging us all to think of clinical legal education as clinical medical education. I think visualizing that model for law school clinics has inspired many of us, myself included, and that maybe this new idea of a law school
    law firm can do the same. While the current model of law school clinics doesn’t mimic firms in the pace with which we handle cases, there are law school clinics that employ a more law-firm-like approach to both the students and the cases, namely more hands-off than hands-on. While I’m among those who worry about the ‘level of supervision’ in this model, now may be the time to welcome new ideas about how to prepare the next generation of lawyers. I welcome the conversation.

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