Forget all the jokes about what should be done with the lawyers. What should be done with the law students?
That question is being tackled — seriously — at a variety of law schools around the country as they undertake a broad series of changes to their curriculums. The changes range from requiring new courses for first-year students to expanding clinical programs to adding electives in the later years to encouraging law students to take courses in other graduate-level programs at their universities.
Harvard Law School announced last year that it would modify its venerable curriculum, and its cross-country rival, Stanford Law School, has begun making changes, too.
Columbia Law School began modifying its curriculum in 2003, and the University of New Mexico School of Law made a series of changes starting three years ago and is weighing more.
“When you haven’t changed your curriculum in 150 years, at some point you look around,” said Elena Kagan, the dean of Harvard Law.
The impetus for the changes is the sense that what has been taught and how it has been taught may be “embarrassingly disconnected from what anybody does,” Ms. Kagan said.
Those concerns were highlighted in a report on legal education published this year by the Carnegie Foundation. The report found that law schools generally stressed analytic training over ethical, interpersonal and other skills that could help them practice law after graduation.
“What certainly stands out is that the dominant model in law school education is focused almost entirely on the development of thinking like a lawyer,” said William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation and the lead author of the report. “And by that, what they mean is being able to be good at legal analysis.”
The report has galvanized reflection at many law schools. In December, Stanford Law will be the host of a meeting of representatives from 10 schools that have designed innovative curriculums, including the City University of New York School of Law, New York University School of Law and the University of Dayton School of Law.
After the meeting, the group will continue working toward a goal of producing a report in 2010, said Lawrence C. Marshall, a professor at Stanford Law who is coordinating the initiative.
For years, law students have focused on judicial opinions, explaining why a case was decided in a particular way. But many lawyers today must read laws and regulations that have not been explained by a judge and advise clients on how to comply with them.
So both Harvard Law and Vanderbilt University Law School have modified their traditional first-year requirements, like contracts, civil procedures and torts, to include a class that teaches students how to interpret statutes and regulations.
Stanford Law and other schools are also making it easier for students to take courses in other graduate-level programs at their universities, recognizing that lawyers often need specialized knowledge in areas like business, technology, biology, international relations, engineering and medicine. Many lawyers today practice across international borders and must be familiar with foreign laws and legal systems.
“Globalization means you have to better prepare lawyers to work in a global context,” said Larry Kramer, dean of Stanford Law.
Some of the changes at elite schools seem to be following the example set by lesser-known institutions.
For example, the law schools at the University of New Mexico and CUNY have for many years required students to participate in clinical programs, in which law students represent real clients under the supervision of professors who are practicing lawyers.
Michelle J. Anderson, the dean at CUNY, said the school, which is less than 30 years old, “wanted to take the best of the traditional, doctrinal teaching and add to it practical lawyering skills.”
Now, Harvard Law and Stanford Law are expanding their clinical offerings. At Harvard, over the past three years, the number of students participating in clinics has nearly doubled.
For years, medical schools have tried to address a similar concern by giving students intensive clinical experience in dealing with real and simulated patients during the last two years of their programs, said Mr. Sullivan of the Carnegie Foundation. Most law schools do not have such a practical focus.
“There is a mode of practical reasoning, of reasoning in situations, which requires that knowledge be constructed and reconstructed to deal with the situation at hand,” said Mr. Sullivan, who is not a lawyer but at times sounds like one. “And that’s the kind of reasoning that good practitioners develop, and it’s something that we know can be taught, but we know it’s not taught very much.”
The efforts of some schools to make curriculum changes is constrained by the bar exam, which students almost always must pass in the state where they plan to practice. So even as faculty try to better prepare students for the complexity of practice, they must make sure they can handle the exam.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Lisa Kloppenberg, dean at the University of Dayton School of Law. To help better prepare students for practice, the law school in 2005 introduced a requirement that all students participate in an “externship,” an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer, as part of its “lawyer as problem solver” program.
Given the constraints — financial and otherwise — facing law schools, and given the different ways that they are trying to refashion what they teach, it will take time to determine whether the changes have made any difference, said Catherine Carpenter, a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, who worked on the Carnegie report. “I would love to be able to do this survey again in 2010 and really see what has changed.”