Law School Deans, Law Schools

Just How Crappy Is Legal Education Today?

On Friday, we told you that at least one corporate GC thinks that first and second year associates are “worthless.” But at the Harvard Law School/New York Law School Future of Education Conference, it wasn’t just business people that had negative things to say about the current state of legal education.

The panel: “Top Three Problems with the Current Model” brought together law firm leaders, consultants, and legal educators to all share their thoughts on what, precisely, is wrong with American law schools.

There were five panelists and a moderator (on my legal pad I made the notation “five person panels are dumb”). And between all five of them, I guess you could say that “everything” is wrong with American legal education. But each of them in turn highlighted different aspects of the process that needed fixing…

The panel, moderated by Anthony Kearns — adjunct faculty at Indiana Law, featured people that interact with would-be associates at distinct points in their education:

Vielka Holness, Director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Pre Law Institute, spoke for the fresh fish not yet baited into the law school trap. Gillian Hadfield, Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at USC, talked about what happens when the kids are already on the hook.

Heather Brock, Chief Professional Development Officer at Howrey, offered the perspective of somebody who has to take students and try to turn them into profitable lawyers.

Keith Wetmore, Chairman of Morrison & Foerster, brought the view from the corner office. And consultant Joe Altonji of Hildebrandt was the guy that talks to the guy in the corner office.

And remember, the audience predominately consisted of law school deans, professors, and other legal educators that had just been scared straight by all of the problems exposed by the recession.

Holness kicked off with the usual kinds of things one says when talking about how legal education can be better. She said that schools need to bridge the gap between legal theory and actual practice. She emphasized the need for clinical requirements that mean something. Most importantly, she said that you need to look further up the pipeline, so students go into law school with an idea of what they need to learn in order to be successful practitioners.

Gillian Hadfield was critical of how resistant to change law schools are. She pointed out that there is very little market pressure for them to change. But instead of just listing all the things law schools should be doing, Hadfield generated some consternation from the audience when she said that law schools weren’t even very good at doing the things that they think they’re doing well. She had some great examples about how bad students are when asked to pick out the important information in the case, or even pick out the information that will be important to a client.

It’s an important note. The kind of information regurgitation that will get an ‘A’ in torts and help you pass the bar will make your memo bleed red — if you’re lucky enough to find a mid-level that will even bother to read it.

Heather Brock was in the interesting situation of both needing to train new associates, while subject to all of the business pressures professors are not. She talked a lot about how firms needed to spend money training associates, which made me wonder if Chester Paul Beach was going to come running back through the door to terrify everybody again. From her unenviable position, Brock mentioned that firms needed to do a better job selecting for the right kind of talent. She said:

It’s easier to hire a cat than to teach a dog how to climb a tree.

I’m pretty sure that prospective Howrey associates should try to appear very feline this fall.

By this point in the conference I was wondering how many times I could write “you’re all totally f***ed” without being charged as an accomplice when readers try to take their own lives. But then Daddy came home, and told me everything was going to be okay (for this performance, the role of Daddy will be played by Kieth Wetmore):

I don’t think we’re doing that badly.

That’s right folks, at least one person, one important person, thinks that there might actually be some small reason to still hire law school graduates. And there was more, Wetmore said that we need to make sure that:

[S]kills focus does not take us away from liberating really creative minds.

Yes. Yes goddamnit! There’s more to being a successful attorney then learning precisely how high to jump when the client tells you to. Somewhere, there might still be a place for law as a profession instead of law as just another business expense.

Of course, there is a catch to Wetmore’s hopeful statements:

I’m blessed to be able to hire from very good schools.

Really, that’s as close as any panelist got to highlighting the difference between the top-14 or 25 truly elite law schools in this country, and the other 175 institutions that maybe can’t even deliver on the “creative minds” part. You still need to bridge the gap between theory and practice with on the job training. But perhaps the upside of hiring exclusively from elite institutions is having lawyers that can master both theory and practice at the same time, once they’re ready?

It’s not like Wetmore didn’t have any criticisms of legal education. He said that it takes too long and he said that young lawyers really need to come to the firm with better writing skills. But more than any of the others, Wetmore had a sense of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He gave a nice little shout-out to Northwestern for its approach.

The ray of light that was Kieth Wetmore danced away once Joe Altonji had the floor. He went back to all of the things consultants have been saying since the recession took hold:

* Law schools are run for and by lawyers.

* We’re doing away from the billable hour.

* Take fewer kids as traditional associates.

Most ATL readers are familiar with the advice. But let’s hope legal educators don’t start designing entire curriculum around the impending death of the billable hour — because the billable hour might be the hardest thing to kill in the history of this planet. Its life can only be measured on a geological time scale.

Altonji did have some interesting things to say about how law schools all teach to one business model: the Biglaw business model. He thought that some law schools should do that, while others should focus on types of law currently populated by people who “failed” to succeed at law schools as currently constructed. Altonji wanted a world where certain schools would be geared towards future government lawyers, while other schools tried to produce small and solo practitioners. Of course, he didn’t say anything about how much cheaper these other schools would have to be in order to attract outstanding students.

There were lots of interesting questions, but the most controversial answer was delivered by Wetmore. Educators in the audience noted that they sometimes want to have more creative course offerings that highlight different kinds of achievement, but law firms don’t respect these kind of courses when they hire people based on grades and class rank. Law firms don’t want to get to know what makes a student special, they just want to know that student’s statistics.

Wetmore responded that firms would like to get on campus and really do some deeper analysis into the class and an interviewee’s strength of schedule, but law schools won’t let him — and there was an audible hissing sounds when he said that. Apparently, the educators in the room really felt that law firms were in the driver’s seat here.

But I knew what Wetmore was getting at and was waiting for him to silence the rabble. But the superior “do you even know what you are talking about” smack down never came. Wetmore was way too classy for that. He let the point go.

But when they pressed him on the issue again, he said simply:

You guys should call up Yale.

Nobody had a follow up question.

In response to the recession, there are a lot of schools out there that would allow a firm like MoFo to crack open the skulls of their students if MoFo would give them a job. But not Yale. If you want a shot at Yale talent, you play by Yale’s rules.

And really, that goes a long way towards explaining why the current model looks the way it does. It’s not ideal, it might even be crappy, but the current model still basically works for the top firms, and the top law schools.

The fact that it’s still basically working at the top might be the biggest reason for the entire industry’s resistance to change.

Earlier: Corporate General Counsel Puts Fear of God into Legal Educators (And You Should Be Worried Too)

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