The Law School of 2020
27 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2016
Date Written: February 17, 2016
The law school of 2020 will soon appear around the corner. An increasingly asked question is, What will it look like? Will it look like the Langdellian model of the past 120 years, centered on the coverage of appellate case reports, leavened by a modest degree of experiences and some tweaks? Or will it look very different – a blend of technology, Langdell, Carnegie, and a reshaped marketplace?
Our view is that the 2020 law school will indeed be different. But how different depends on who wins the war between traditional education, tracing back to the days of Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell in the 1870s, and the current drivers influencing legal education from inside and out. In a word, we are living in a time of struggle – struggle for control of the soul of legal education.
In legal education orthodoxy, the law school essentially has lived a double-life – part grand university, part Hessian craft guild. The grand university identity takes on a similar hue as a graduate liberal arts endeavor: offering a good background for its emphasis on critical thinking, whether students practice law or not. The Hessian craft guild, by contrast, trains students to learn the details of the skilled practitioner, to welcome clients into a specific domain. This double life is firmly rooted in traditional legal education, but it is not evenly spaced. Instead, it generally has been skewed toward the grand university identity. As the oft-repeated saying has it, law schools teach people how to "think like lawyers", but not actually how to be lawyers. In this regard, legal education appears to be a professional training ground that at least implicitly distances itself from the practical preparation required to succeed within specific domains.
Especially in the United States, the tensions underlying this double life have been exacerbated in recent years by powerful market forces – students are applying in strikingly lower numbers to enter law school, clients are demanding changed fee structures, and the Internet is providing access to forms purveyors and legal services across states and countries. At the same time, the old legal education pipeline, from law school, to big firms, to in-house and other jobs, has been significantly degraded.
Accompanying the degradation of the legal education pipeline has been the demise of the complementary but implicit partnership with the legal profession – that law schools teach students to think, and lawyers teach students how to actually practice law. The understanding is that schools turn out unpolished students, and the profession turns them into completed lawyers, acting as finishing schools for the profession. Historically, this implicit partnership thrived. All parties benefitted. It created greater demand when jobs were plentiful, as well as exuberantly high salaries. It even benefitted law professors, who could teach within the university confines, draw increasingly large salaries, and devote time to scholarship and a few classes each year.
This training agreement essentially collapsed during the great recession of 2008-10, when lawyers and law firms could no longer devote the resources to polish students over a period of time. With fewer students applying to schools and jobs much less plentiful, creating value for the education became paramount. The drivers of change became reframing tools, causing law schools to commence vertical and horizontal remapping of the entire education in a way that had not occurred for decades. Critical evaluation of the Langdellian education form grew exponentially.
This article posits that the legal education of 2020 will have to involve reframing if it is again to thrive. The drivers of change, particularly the law services marketplace and the changing nature of clients and legal work, will require faculty and administrators to reconsider outcomes, values and objectives of the enterprise. In many ways, any resulting configuration ought to become more like that of a business school than a liberal arts curriculum. For example, there should be a reinvigorated focus on connections between lawyering, clients and legal education, including the recognition that most students who attend law school intend to practice some form of law. The education should connect with new realities – that lawyers today reach solutions collaboratively, often in teams; that lawyers manage projects and utilize a variety of skill-sets, all within a service profession requiring expertise in different but specialized knowledge domains; and that access to legal services is still an issue for many persons living in the United States. Given the utilization of these new drivers and the connections illuminated between lawyering and law school, the underlying theory-practice tensions also should shift. In essence, law schools likely will start producing more measurable outcomes – outcomes focusing on transforming novices into nimble experts with multiple skill sets. In 2020, the change in legal education might be significant, but it also needs to be significantly improved, given the volatile nature of the times.
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