Ask any third year law student from any graduating class, and you’ll hear the same knocks on law school. The curriculum is out of touch with the practice of law.
Sure, they’ll admit the need to learn the theories and precedents underlying the legal system. At the same time, it’s hard to refute their deeper concern: How helpful is ‘thinking like an attorney’ when you don’t know what to file or when (let alone taking a case from start-to-finish)?
It wasn’t always like this. The law was once an apprentice industry, no different than the training of plumbers and electricians. Future lawyers spent years “reading law” under the tutelage of a judge or seasoned attorney to prepare for practice. Eventually, law evolved from a vocation to an academic discipline. The result: law graduates can churn out briefs in droves — just don’t ask them about procedure.
As you can imagine, this places law graduates at a disadvantage early in their careers. And Duke Law’s Seth Pearson, a former White House intern, believes schools should focus more heavily on practical skills. “I think many law students leave law school with no idea what it means to be a lawyer,” Pearson says. “Duke Law has made great strides in creating opportunities for students to practice the skills they learn in the classroom, but the opportunities are optional and can be seen sometimes as a distraction to your education instead of a critical piece of the academic experience. I would like to see professional conduct and practical skills become a pillar of legal education. It would make us all better at what we will be asked to do in practice.”
Pearson is just one of the voices from Tipping The Scales’ Top Law Students From The Class of 2016 who is calling for law school reform. As part of its survey of this year’s “Best & Brightest” 3Ls, Tipping The Scales asked nominees to share how they would change law school. From experiential learning to grading practices and diversity, the 2016 Class didn’t hold back.
Unsurprisingly, their complaints start with experiential learning opportunities (or the lack thereof). Hannah Alexander, who plans to specialize in immigrant rights, civil rights, and employment law after graduating from Texas Law, would shift law schools’ attention to areas like working with clients and writing briefs over “cramming for one final test at the end of the semester.” Similarly, Vanderbilt Law’s Lawrence Crane-Moscowitz, a Wharton-trained Goldman Sachs analyst ticketed to commercial litigation, touts clinical education as one way to reduce graduates’ learning curve. “I think law school in general needs to put a stronger focus on clinical education,” he explains. “Lawyering is much more than just pure doctrinal study. It is learning how to interview clients, how to manage expectations, how to lead projects. Without more focus on these skills, I think young lawyers will be underprepared for entering the workplace.”
In fact, graduates like William & Mary Law’s Katie Chounet contend that clinical or externship experiences should take place early on, even in the first year of law school. One reason, says USC Law’s Madi DiPietro, is that it gives students a leg up during summer internships. More important, adds Minnesota Law’s Amber Kraemer, it would help students bring be more immediately valuable to clients when they enter the profession. “The first time that you complete a piece of legal work that you know is benefiting a client is an incredible experience,” Kraemer notes. “I have learned more in my 'hands-on' law school experiences than I learned in any single course.”
Berkeley Law’s Misha Tsukerman would take it a step further. While he lauds the school’s service opportunities, he would build in mandatory clinics. On the other hand, Tomer Vandsburger would de-emphasize bar exam prep. In the process, he would implement a two track law school system at the University of Washington to balance abstract legal models with nuts-and-bolts know-how. “The first track would be the traditional coursework, which would focus on deeper, more theoretical understandings of the law. The second would focus on developing practical skills for day-to-day legal practice. I think that by focusing on preparation for the bar, schools take away rigorous instruction and the opportunity for students to explore less traditional legal paths.”
More real world learning isn’t the only change that the “Best & Brightest” would make to the curriculum. Another would be focusing less on issue-spotting, defined by George Washington Law’s Dane Shikman as “identifying legal issues in a hypothetical fact pattern and applying established rules to resolve those issues.” While Shikman, winner of the 2015 National Moot Court Competition, values this approach, he’d ramp up critical thinking. “I would enhance the focus on understanding case law and strengthening the skill of analogizing and distinguishing cases. This I think is where litigators can help judges and their clerks most—in parsing through unclear precedent and explaining why some cases apply and others do not. I think it also requires more creativity and imagination than the rote application of law to fact.”
Duke Law’s Christine Kim would take a different path. Her vision involves students experiencing legal theory and its ramifications side-by-side. Doing so would provide both greater context and recognition of the responsibilities that attorneys carry. “I believe that law school should focus more on what it means to be a lawyer, an officer of the court, and the duties that we have to society and to ensuring that all individuals get equal treatment and opportunity under the law.”
In the same vein, Berkeley Law’s Lora Krsulich pines for more contemporary and relevant coursework. The former editor-in-chief of the California Law Review calls on professors to make their courses more contemporary and relevant. “I would like legal teachers to take more liberties with going outside of the casebook and engaging with current litigation or legal issues in the news.”
Racheal M. White Hawk would also encourage professors to step outside the standard Western legal systems and expose students to alternative approaches to justice. A Rosebud Sioux tribal member and Arizona State Law graduate, White Hawk offers up the concept of peacekeeping, a traditional form of Navajo dispute resolution, as an example. "It’s a very different form of dispute resolution in that the focus is more on healing between parties rather than establishing a winner and loser,” White Hawk explains. Typically, attorneys are not allowed in the peacemaking process because their training is too adversarial. Everyone gets a turn to speak and the parties work together to form a resolution.
Law schools have become legendary for brutal workloads and a Darwinian ethos. Everyone has a story about being twisted into knots over Socratic questions during a cold call. Let’s not forget those cutthroat classmates who don’t share notes and are always looking to one-up their peers. One reason for this nastiness: Grades matter. Often, they’re derived from narrow rubrics that don’t truly measure performance. To bridge this gap, Boston College’s Robert Rossi suggests a more expansive grading system. “My favorite classes in law school and the ones in which I have learned the most have been the ones that base grades on multiple assignments over the course of the semester, rather than on one exam at its end.”
Many graduates would like to chuck the law school curve altogether. The curve — where a certain percentage of students are allotted a certain grade — has been the bane of law students for generations. Although Boston College’s Andrea Clavijo admits that the curve “terrifies us, but also motivates us,” she believes it ultimately creates a toxic by-product that undermines the profession. “If the law school system weren’t so built around numbers, I think employers would be forced to place a greater emphasis in personality, work-ethic, and professionalism when interviewing candidates for positions,” Clavijo says.
The University of Minnesota’s Christopher Ortega seconds Clavijo’s sentiments. “Law schools should replace the traditional A-F grades with a pass/fail grading system. This will allow students to focus their attention on learning the law rather than simply fixating on grades. There are many students who can get good grades, but far fewer who possess the qualities necessary to be great lawyers.”
Of course, law schools are also notorious for their all-night study sessions and unrelenting pace that turns ambitious first-year do-gooders into cynical third-year burnouts. Hence, USC Law’s Tania El-Bayar has a piece of advice for law school professors and administrators: Ease up. “I think there is a belief that you need to run yourself into the ground to excel. While I completely understand that timing can be critical and there is a lot of detailed work involved, I think that the intensity can be too taxing, and it causes the profession to lose talent.”
While amending grading and increasing experiential learning are the main reforms on the Class of 2016’s wish list, graduates submitted several other recommendations. One is reducing class sizes, which would allow students (particularly fledgling first-years) to receive more personal support.
Another flashpoint is affordability. According to George Washington Law’s Julia Haigney, who started out as a part-time evening student working a full-time job, financial stress is a pervasive part of the culture. “First-year students worry about job prospects and third-year students sometimes feel disillusioned if their career search has not gone as expected,” she says.
And the pressure is even greater for students entering public service, adds the University of Washington’s Manmeet Dhami. This could ricochet back onto low income individuals —the people most in need of legal help.”It is difficult to serve as an advocate when you are riddled with law school debt,” Dhami observes. One possible solution: Greater commitment to serving the disadvantaged. “If I had a magic wand, I would close the gap that exists between people who need legal services and can’t afford them, and law school graduates who need jobs and can’t find them,” says Northwestern Law’s Meghan Claire Hammond. “Fortunately, some good organizations, like the Civic Legal Corps, have already started pursuing this.”
Although some activists have proposed a two-year law curriculum to cut debt, George Mason Law’s Peter Donohue believes such ploys would be misguided. Instead, he suggests a four-year program. He even admits that it sounds “insane” on the surface. That said, there is a reasonable method behind his so-called madness.
“After three years, I feel like I am leaving school having only touched the tip of the iceberg,” Donohue says. “Four years would allow students to dig a little deeper into the wealth of knowledge law school has to offer. In a four-year program, the first year could be focused on learning to write and think like a lawyer. The second could continue academic coursework while adding a focus on extracurricular activities like journals and competitions. The third year could be more practice-oriented, where students would go out into the workforce and really learn an area of law through hands on work while also beginning to pay down loans; this would make students more open to all opportunities after graduation because they would not feel as burdened by law school debt. Finally, the fourth year could be more high level legal academic work, where students could take classes which dig deeper into the theoretical side of the practical work they had done in their third year.”
The “Best & Brightest” also yearned for greater diversity — in law school and beyond. “The legal profession does not yet reflect the make up, diversity, and breadth of the community that it serves,” admits Vanderbilt Law’s Samiyyah Ali. “Regardless of my future career path, I hope to contribute to making the law more accessible to everyone and representative of the differing communities of our society.”
This article was originally published on Tipping the Scales.