A 21st Century “generalist legal education”? Skills & professional identity focused.

More musings on generalist v. specialist education, and how much doctrine law schools need to teach.

A conversation with one of our University of Washington alums — Leo Flor, Westpoint grad, Gates Public Service Law Scholar, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Northwest Justice Project, and spark plug for the new resource Representing Washington Veterans  — has me chewing on whether we need a new understanding of what a “generalist legal education” means.

Leo noted that the JD is often viewed as a relevant generalist credential, even though most law school grads move into traditional bar-passage-required “law practice” jobs.  And he observed that many job postings for alternative positions list an MBA or MPA as a relevant qualification, but not the JD.

The traditional generalist education of my era, and to a significant extent still, was intended to teach a set of analytical skills and and expose students to a broad range of legal doctrine potentially relevant to a general practitioner and to passing the bar exam. Though passing the bar remains important and is a significant factor in designing the educational program for lower tier schools, few 21st century lawyers are truly general practitioners.

Perhaps the generalist foundation needed in this era is built on skills, more than doctrinal knowledge.  And for Leo’s purpose not only skills in a technician sense.  Skills also in a “professional identity” sense.  Self-awareness & understanding of ones’ own gifts.  Leadership and interpersonal skills. Such an understanding of generalist could make the JD an appropriate credential for the types of job Leo described.

In a previous post, I suggested that that, at least for those students who come to law school with significant self-knowledge and experience, a substantively specialized curriculum could make sense, if combined with the general analytical and research skills to learn new areas.  This is not a new  idea.  Back in 2002 then-law-student Kevin E. Houchen self-published a detailed review of the trend toward certificate programs and concentrations, arguing that for a subset of students such specialization makes sense.

A decade later in 2012 the New York Times touted  NYU’s  limited moves toward greater specialization not just once, but again in an article  promoting specialization for law schools focused on Biglaw.

And in early May of this year 2015 at the National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services sponsored by the ABA and Stanford Law School, speakers reiterated these themes.   Richard Susskind (13:08) argued that legal education needs to train graduates for 21sth century jobs like legal project managers, legal process analysts, legal knowledge engineers, and legal risk management.  Prof. Deborah Rhode(13.29) observed that it “makes no sense to train Wall Street M &A lawyers the same way we train someone who’s going to be doing routine real estate and divorce work in a small town.”

It is not so very difficult to understand what acting on Prof. Rhode’s observation might mean.  As a practical matter, some curricular differentiation based on where graduates will practice already takes place, linked primarily to  different levels in the law school hierarchy.  Beyond that, many schools offer an extensive enough curriculum – both in doctrine and skills — to permit considerable specialization aimed at traditional law practice niches, even beyond formal concentration tracks and certificate programs.

For more specialized training law schools that offer extensive LL.M. programs routinely allow students to complete an accelerated JD/LL.M in three calendar years.  In the tax field, where the LL.M. has long been de rigueur, many schools provide such opportunities, including NYU, the long-time leader in tax LL.M’s.  And increasingly, schools educate students not just in substantive tax specialties, but also — using my own school, the University of Washington as an example — with  tax-focused skills and clinical training for both JD. and LL.M. students.

My hunch is that increasing numbers of students already opt to specialize, sometimes with a substantive law focus, often combined with a skills focus, e.g.  corporate deals with drafting or criminal & tort law with trial advocacy.

Richard Susskind’s challenge is a bigger stretch for legal education, though, again, some initiatives are visible, such as Michigan State‘s Reinvent Law Laboratory.

A key challenge for law schools is to learn how to identify prospective students or develop admitted ones who understand their life goals and values, and their intellectual and personal gifts well enough to make intelligent decisions around specialization.  To meet that  challenge, a holistic approach to education is needed –whether understood in the MacCrate framework of knowledge,  skills and values, or the Carnegie framework of cognitive, professional skills and ethical professional identity apprenticeships.

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One Response

  1. This is a very thought provoking column as it addresses the very question most law schools are asking themselves: how to best train and position their students for success. While I wholeheartedly agree that “[a] key challenge for law schools is to learn how to identify prospective students or develop admitted ones who understand their life goals and values, and their intellectual and personal gifts well enough to make intelligent decisions around specialization”, I wonder how schools can achieve this lofty goal? As a teacher of 1L’s, primarily, few of my students have any real knowledge of their intellectual and personal gifts, nor have they given real thought to their goals and values. Those who essentially “check a box” in a perceived educational path by coming to law school straight after undergrad rarely stop to give these substantive issues the attention they need. I hope this changes as schools (hopefully) shift their attention away from simply filing seats to filing a class of students able to make these intelligent decisions around specialization.

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