The following was supplied by Sarah E. Ricks, Clinical Professor and Co-Director, Pro Bono Research Project, Rutgers School of Law – Camden:
By Katherine Mangan
The nation’s legal-education system needs a major overhaul so that students graduating with more than $100,000 in debt can find jobs in a shrinking market and graduate ready to practice. That was the consensus of most of the nearly 100 judges and law-firm partners who converged at a forum this week sponsored by Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
Participants in the “National Forum on the Future of Legal Education” said law schools should emulate medical schools and transform the third year into clinical rotations, so that students know the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer by the time they graduate. Such changes are needed, they said, at a time when law firms are hiring fewer lawyers, and clients are less willing to pay for young associates to gain on-the-job training with their cases.
Many of those who shared ideas at the forum were adjunct law professors or lawyers who had previously taught law. But they were dispensing advice as law-firm partners and judges who hire and work with young lawyers, who they said often lack the analytical and writing skills they need to be effective their first year out of school.
“What law firms do is train junior lawyers, and they are basically unprofitable in their first or second years,” said Andrew A. Giaccia, an executive partner with Chadbourne & Parke LLP, a global corporate law firm.
At some firms, 50 percent or more of these junior lawyers leave during their first two years, he added. “When they’re gone, that training investment is gone,” Mr. Giaccia said. “It’s not an economic model that makes sense.”
He argued for shaving one year off the three-year J.D. to allow students to complete their basic course work in two years—more like an M.B.A. After that, schools could create personalized tracks to provide additional training based on students’ career choices. A student planning to go into solo practice, for instance, could spend an extra year getting advanced training in that.
Variations of that theme received wide support as participants debated and then voted on their favorite solutions to the training problem.
Paul Schiff Berman, law dean at Arizona State University, said his staff will summarize the findings and recommendations and distribute them to law schools nationwide. He also hopes to incorporate many of the recommendations into his school’s curriculum, which already includes a required course on bridging the gap from law school to practice and 11 litigation and non-litigation clinics.
Theresa H. Vella, a Phoenix-based partner with a major corporate law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, suggested a third year of rotations in which students might spend a month each in a large firm, a solo practice, a government office, and a nonprofit group.
Another proposal would allow students to receive a provisional license after two years of law school. After that, they would go to work for a firm that might pay them $40,000 instead of $160,000, but in exchange, they would receive training and mentoring.
Curricula Need Revamping
Participants at the forum also noted that law-school curricula are heavily skewed toward litigation. But with fewer cases going to trial today, in part because litigation is so expensive, students need more experience in practicing transactional law, drafting documents, and negotiating terms with clients, several participants said. During their third year, students should also learn practical skills like how to open a law office, advertise, and get clients, several participants said.
“Lawyers come out of law school eager and smart and knowing absolutely nothing useful,” said J. William Dantzler Jr., the head of global tax practice for the firm White & Case LLP. “I came here with a vague sense that doing away with the third year might be useful, but being a lawyer, I want to hear both sides.” During his own third year of law school, he said, “I mostly drank beer and enjoyed myself immensely.”
Roger A. Denning, a national recruiter for the law firm of Fish & Richardson, in San Diego, said the third year should be revamped so that students paying as much as $45,000 a year in tuition and fees are practicing skills they will actually be using when they graduate.
Fewer than a quarter of graduating law students go to work for firms with more than 100 lawyers, and about 56 percent work in private practice, according to NALP: The Association for Legal Career Professionals. The rest find jobs in government, public service, business, or other sectors.
“It used to be that graduates would go into big law firms, make a lot of money, and pay off their loans, but that’s not the case anymore,” Mr. Denning said. “I worry when people ask, ‘Am I really going to take on $150,000 in debt to go into a profession that’s not hiring the way it was?’ Some of the best and brightest might just say, ‘No thanks.’ ”
His firm, one of the top patent-law firms in the country, pays first-year associates $160,000 a year, ,, but it only plans to hire a third as many new associates this fall as it did two years ago.
Practical Experience Crucial
Another speaker at the forum said that some of the training law students need can come from mentors.
Patrick J. Schiltz, a U.S. District Court judge in Minnesota, taught law at the University of Notre Dame and the University of St. Thomas before his appointment to the federal bench in 2006. At St. Thomas, where he also served as an associate dean, he helped set up a program in which all students are required to have a mentor for all three years. Students shadow lawyers during witness depositions, court hearings, and alternative dispute resolutions.
Mr. Schiltz said most law professors nationwide graduated from a few top schools and have little practice experience.
“The faculty can’t teach these skills because they don’t know how,” he said. “They’ve never had a client, and they aren’t interested. Teaching students (these skills) doesn’t enhance their prestige or help their schools climb in the rankings.”
He added that the nation has no shortage of disadvantaged people needing legal help, but most debt-burdened law-school graduates can’t afford to take the public-interest jobs that would help these individuals… As a result, “there’s a tsunami of lawyers, and people are dying of thirst.”
Michael P. McCuskey, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, said most law-school graduates in his state go to work in solo or small practices. “With the economic downturn, more and more law students are compelled economically to put out their own shingle,” he said. In addition to mentoring, “they need training in ethics and professionalism in the third year, because many will start out viewing their job as a business that is paying off their debts.”
The American Bar Association’s accrediting arm is considering changes to its accreditation standards that would address such concerns. One of the more controversial proposals being considered would require schools to measure how well their graduates had mastered specified skills.
Some deans worry about the added financial burden such a requirement might entail during tough economic times.
Also: Chris Coughlin, Sandy Patrick, and Lisa McElroy just published an article on this topic in 26 Georgia State Law Review 361 (2010).
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