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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Disruptive Innovation & the AALS Clinical Conference

One of the highlights of last week’s AALS Conference for Clinical Law Teachers was the closing talk by Michele Weise, Senior Fellow, Education at the Clay Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. (A big shout out to Michele Pistone for her role in making that talk happen!) I was superficially familiar with the  disruptive innovation thesis, but Weise’s half-hour talk brought to life its relevance to the current moment in legal education in a way that previous exposure had not. Disruptive innovations that shake up a market or industry often follow a predictable pattern, it is argued. The established players in the market target a higher end client base and compete on quality, improving the product and selling it at a high margin.  This leaves a significant, low-end segment of the market unserved. New entrants provide an inferior product to these unserved consumers, and gradually improve the product and expand their market.  Poof go the established players. Think personal computers, print media, digital cameras, mobile phones . . . . Traditional higher education has long failed to reach a significant segment of potential consumers and the federal government’s shift from financial aid grants to student loans has greatly exacerbated that problem. Arguably, the stage is set for disruptive innovation and on-line technology may be the means to that disruption. The next step of Weise’s analysis was what really captured my attention. She noted that higher education currently serves many functions – transmission of content and certification of knowledge or skills; providing a safe space for young adults to mature socially; networking opportunities, mentoring and tutoring; research & dissemination of scholarship. These functions can be – and are being – disaggregated and provided more cheaply on line. Even the Harvards of the world are potentially at risk, according to Weise. Law schools have traditionally provided a generalist education.  As legal practice becomes more specialized, that educational model arguably serves to mask more specialized functions that could be disaggregated.  This is already being tried in my home state of Washington with our new Limited Licensed Legal Technician (aka/ Triple LT) program.  But lawyers also wouldn’t have to be trained as generalists.  As course offerings expand, the potential for moving away from the traditional generalist education does also.  Already,  this shows up in the transcripts of some of my students who are not necessarily taking the doctrinal courses that were considered foundational in my day.  Does this matter? Before hearing Weise’s talk, during the Law Clinic Directors Workshop, I raised the question “how much doctrine do we need to teach?” Good lawyers, I observed,  have extensive doctrinal knowledge.  (Of course, law schools historically haven’t taught doctrine in connection with the experiential anchor points that many of us need in order to retrieve that knowledge for practice.)  Elliott Milstein later challenged the importance of doctrinal knowledge,  observing that his clinic students handle their cases well regardless of whether they have taken relevant doctrinal courses.  Often true.  And yet . . .  The counter-example that I didn’t have a chance to share:  one of my  students  recognized that we could challenge a new unemployment compensation statute on the ground that the subject was not properly included in the title of the legislation.  A classic case of issue spotting that came about solely because he was taking a Washington State Constitutional Law course.  (I didn’t recognize the issue.) A reminder that the ability to issue spot is valuable.  But  . . . state constitutional law isn’t a classic “foundational” “bar course”. This issue spotting was strictly serendipity – a traditional doctrinally-focused course load would not have accomplished this result. I’m still struggling with the generalist/specialist question.  But it leaves me thinking about the potential for niche curricular innovation aimed at students – often older ones who understand their talents, passions and life goals – who come to law school with a commitment to a practice area like criminal law, immigration law, or business law.

  • Are there enough of those students to justify a legal education targeted at those niches?
  • If so, can we focus their education in a way that really prepares them for their specialty?
  • And, can we at the same time identify a “sweet spot” of “just enough” generalist knowledge to accompany that specialization?  One that provides a foundation for passing the bar exam and the analytical and research skills to master new areas of the law, but does not take up the bulk of a three year curriculum?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  But they strike me as worth investigating.

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