Biglaw, Conferences / Symposia, Education / Schools, Law School Deans, Law Schools

Changes in Legal Education: Some Thoughts from Dean David Van Zandt

northwestern law school.gifEarlier this week, at the PLI Law Firm Leadership and Management Institute — which was excellent, by the way (and not just because we presented there) — Dean David Van Zandt, of Northwestern University School of Law, offered some reflections on the future of legal education. (We used one of his comments as a recent quote of the day.)

Dean Van Zandt’s presentation was thoughtful and thought-provoking. He analyzed a number of recent reforms made by leading law schools. He also explained the changes that Northwestern Law School has made to its academic program.

One of his most interesting tidbits was the starting salary that would constitute a “break-even point” for going to law school. In other words, what salary would you have to earn upon graduation in order to make going to law school an economically rational decision?

Van Zandt and some of his Northwestern colleagues did a study to determine the added value of a J.D. degree. They concluded that the break-even starting salary for a law school graduate is $65,000. Put another way, going to a law school with a median salary upon graduation that’s below $65,000 is not a wise investment.

Schools with median starting salaries under $65,000, which generally land somewhere in the 70s in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, are not good values. They need to either lower their cost to students and/or improve job opportunities for their graduates, according to Van Zandt.

(A break-even point of $65K seems low to us, given high law school tuition, the borrowing costs associated with student loans, and the opportunity cost of going to law school when you could be earning a salary in some other industry. We’ve reached out to Dean Van Zandt to ask for more detail about the data he utilized and the assumptions he made in reaching his conclusion. Another academic, Herwig Schlunk of Vanderbilt Law, believes that the break-even point is much higher.)

Van Zandt described the law school business model as follows (which reflects his quote of the day, noting how the fortunes of law schools and law firms are inextricably linked):

Clients—fees—->Law Firms—salaries—->Law School Graduates—–tuition—->Law Schools

This is the historical model, but it’s under stress. The legal economy is changing. For example, a 33% decline in summer associate offers is projected for 2010. Clients are balking at paying for junior associates, which raises a question: If clients will no longer pay for the training of junior associates, who will?

One possibility raised by Van Zandt: partners. In many businesses, owners pay for the training of their employees.
Another possibility: law schools can improve their training of future lawyers. But this is easier said than done. It will require significant changes, and some law schools have been resistant. Van Zandt enumerated some impediments to change:

  • Law schools tend to be inward-looking rather than outward-looking.

  • Law school governance: they operate like clubs (rather than corporations).
  • ABA regulation of law schools is overly focused on inputs rather than outputs.

Van Zandt then reviewed some recent changes made by law schools:

1. Harvard: changes in curriculum, announced in 2006.

For first years: Required courses in legislation, international law, and problem solving. For second and third years: more well-developed plans of study in specific specialty areas.

2. Stanford: changes in second and third year programs, announced in 2006.

Greater emphasis on interdisciplinary study, including joint degree programs.

3. Washington & Lee: greater practical training, announced in 2008.

Students required to complete at least one live client experience and to obtain a Virginia practice certificate. Year-long professionalism program with individual faculty members.

4. Dayton: two-year law degree, announced in 2005.

Elimination of third year; 2-year JD (5 semesters); additional mandatory classes added.

Van Zandt noted that these changes were largely generated internally by law schools, not based on feedback from practicing lawyers — in contrast to the changes made at Northwestern.

The Northwestern Plan – 2008

Northwestern Law developed a market-based plan for revamping the education it offers its students. The changes were developed based on (1) empirical studies of Northwestern alumni, (2) reviews of the development frameworks of U.S. and U.K. law firms, and (3) focus groups with lawyers from leading law firms, corporate general counsels, and government and nonprofit leaders.

Northwestern concluded that law schools should develop and inculcate in their students:

  • general legal knowledge;

  • communication skills, especially writing skills;
  • contract drafting;
  • business exposition (how to explain a legal recommendation to a client in a business-relevant way);
  • strategic thinking;
  • basic quantitative skills (accounting / finance / statistics); and
  • an understanding of globalization / international exposure.

To achieve these goals, Northwestern implemented the following changes:

  • starting a accelerated JD program (two years), for a select group of students;

  • for the regular three-year J.D. program, making the third year more “experiential” and practical;
  • changes to admissions: interviews (required), work experience (required for almost all students; three years of post-college work experience is ideal, according to Van Zandt); seeking applicants with global exposure / international experience; greater emphasis on references and essays (to evaluate project management and communication skills); and
  • curricular changes: greater emphasis on teamwork in classes, as well as specific courses in business strategy, quantitative analysis, and problem solving.

Van Zandt took the opportunity to make a Northwestern pitch to the conference (which was smart, given that the place was crawling with Biglaw partners, including many managing partners — we met a half-dozen or so). As a result of the changes it has made, Northwestern’s “brand” as a law school is going to focus on superior training. An employer who hires a Northwestern Law graduate will know that he or she is ready to hit the ground running.

Of course, training is not the exclusive province of law schools. Van Zandt stated that law firms are still superior to law schools in certain areas of attorney development, such as cultivating the most practical / technical skills or acquiring specialized, substantive legal knowledge (in a way that can be applied to solving the problems of clients).

Van Zandt concluded by advising law firm leaders to do the following:

  • identify the traits you seek in new lawyers;

  • adopt recruiting processes that focus on and sort for these traits; and
  • train your attorneys in the competencies you seek.

And hire Northwestern Law graduates, early and often. Go Wildcats!

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be…Lawyers [SSRN]

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