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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Cassidy on Suggestions for Improving Legal Education

Another good day for posts on legal education. Via Al Brophy at the Faculty Lounge, here is a link to a forthcoming article in the Boston College Law Review by Michael Cassidy titled "Beyond Practical Skills: Nine Suggestions for Improving Legal Education Now." It's short, clean, and clear and worth the time. He also talks about implementation, and points out that many of his recommendations could easily be implemented by individual faculty members, and others by fairly simple actions on the part of law school administrations.

I am particularly interested in two of his proposals:

1) A course on career paths, something Cassidy reports is frequently offered in MBA programs. This would serve two purposes, at least. The first is the one Cassidy suggests: to prepare students for increases in job mobility over the course of professional careers. The second would be more immediate: I often hear from students who are interested in pursuing particular professional paths but feel their school gives them too little information, and too late, about what to take, and/or that the course schedule is organized in a way that makes it difficult to pursue a targeted curriculum. I think students can and should change their minds about what they will do as lawyers even during law school, let alone having to deal with some mobility after law school, so too much microtargeting too early can be problematic. But we should at least make their choices and options clearer, and make sure that the course calendar makes those options real, not just hypothetical.

2) A law practice management course. This seems a must to me, at least for the many, many schools that are increasingly graduating students who, if they find jobs, are more likely to be in smaller or solo practices. And it could be more than a "make sure you have spare pencils" kind of thing. I have also heard from practicing lawyers who say they find that an increasing number of attorneys emerging into this environment are untrained or uninterested in dealing with or collaborating with other attorneys, and that the legal community in particular places is less manageable and useful because of it. It seems to me that a law practice management course should, among other things, talk about ways for fledgling attorneys to deal with other attorneys, to find ways of creating mutual support networks and mentoring substitutes, and more generally to find ways of establishing real or virtual practice groups or associations so that solo lawyers and small practices have access to ways of learning and disseminating best practices. I should note with pleasure that Alabama recently started such a course. I hope it will do still more along these lines.

Three short notes. First, I continue to agree with the broad point made in Brian Tamanaha's forthcoming book (see yesterday's post) that there is room for a plurality of approaches among law schools. I don't know that every school is obliged to follow Cassidy's recommendations in all their particulars, or should. Whatever a school does, though, it should do so mindfully and collectively, with an eye toward what students at a particular school actually need and, just as important, what the clients they will hopefully serve actually need. (Indeed, the more I read on reform of legal education, including some of the best critiques of law schools, the more I notice how rarely the word "client" appears in those discussions.) Although Cassidy is right that most of his reforms could be instituted by individual professors and administrators, it's also true that these reforms would be much more effective if they represented a concerted and responsive vision for each school as a whole.

Second, and I think relatedly, some of these reforms, if done right, ought to lead us to rethink the law school calendar altogether. Why must it follow the customary path of one or two weak weaks of introduction for first-year students and then six large block semesters? Take the career path course. It seems to me it would make the most sense to do it over a week or two in the spring semester of first year, before students have made their course selections. Is there some reason we couldn't just schedule it then, with or without cancelling their usual classes for a week or two? My experience has been that many curricular reform meetings end up tinkering around the edges--should contracts be three or four credits? should we teach con law in first or second year?--because the general structure of the academic year is assumed and it's difficult to secure enough agreement on collective action to really rethink the calendar. Again, I think we could do better. I can't speak to how much this has to do with ABA accreditation requirements; certainly if those are an obstacle, the obstacle should be lowered.

Finally, I should note that this article (and the posts I mentioned yesterday) mostly don't deal with some of the broader financial and transparency issues. That doesn't mean I've forgotten them. I'm more or less sympathetic to the point made in various places, including in a post a couple months back by Campos, that many complaints about legal education either have to do with or founder on the basic question of jobs. The best curricular reforms in the world won't answer that basic question, although they might help on the margins. But, as I wrote many months ago, we have a duty as educators to make legal education sound and responsive, regardless of the current state of the economy. We shouldn't be misled into thinking that reforming our practices would help our jobless students; but neither, if the economy improves and some of the loudest voices for reform are softened, should we forget that this continuing duty still exists, in good times and bad. 

 

 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 8, 2012 at 08:47 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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"I have also heard from practicing lawyers who say they find that an increasing number of attorneys emerging into this environment are untrained or uninterested in dealing with or collaborating with other attorneys, and that the legal community in particular places is less manageable and useful because of it."

Care to explain what this means?

Posted by: shg | May 8, 2012 9:14:49 AM

Certainly, and my apologies if I was unclear. I meant that I have spoken to practicing attorneys who have found that an increasing number of relatively new attorneys in their community (smaller communities, generally, in which lawyers are repeat dealers with each other) have made little effort to get to know the other lawyers in the community, have weak communication skills, and have few skills at negotiation and collaboration for problem-solving purposes. Obviously, given that it's second-hand information, I'm not in a position to evaluate these anecdotal data, although I trust the people I spoke to. Certainly, however, I see no harm and at least some possible good in giving students who may well become solo practitioners some grounding in, or at least reason to think about, how to deal productively with other lawyers. Of course I'm open to your perspective on this.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 8, 2012 9:26:58 AM

Thanks for the explanation, but I'm still not entirely clear of what is meant by collaboration. Solos don't work by committee. On the other hand, new lawyers tend to demonstrate a number of traits that can make them unwelcome by the existing legal community, including arrogance, entitlement, narcissim and a lack of respect for ethical concerns. They can't seem to understand why experienced lawyers aren't nearly as overwhelmed with their brilliance as they think they should be, and therefore thrilled to work with them and refer work to them.

Is this what you're talking about? If so, I'm not sure a class in law school is going to change much. If not, then I remain unclear on what aspect of collaboration you're talking about, and where it falls in the grand scheme of things law students need to know to enter the practice of law.

Posted by: shg | May 8, 2012 10:02:13 AM

Again, thanks for the comment. I should make clear that I may be unclear because I'm unclear on the matter. Certainly the complaints you voice are also complaints I've heard. I've also heard, more specifically--and I think this is half of what my reference to collaboration was about--from lawyers who say that whereas the lawyers in their community have gotten used to negotiating solutions to problems between their clients, some of the newer solo lawyers seem never to contemplate any possibility other than hard-driving litigation. Now, I would say as a caveat that 1) there is always a danger, I suppose, of a particular community becoming too cozy, and 2) there is clearly a time and place for litigation. I think the point of the complaint, though, was that these lawyers just didn't have any other arrows in their quivers, and hadn't really learned to work with other lawyers rather than treating them only as adversaries.

I think the other point I was making about collaboration goes to your observation that solos don't work by committee. Of course that's right, but my point was that we might think about how we can send lawyers into solo practice aware of the potential virtues of learning from each other rather than making mistakes because they had (or felt they had) no one to ask.

I agree--I think I said, in my prior comment--that no class can teach all these skills. It still seems to me that there is more good than harm in at least putting these issues on the radar screens of law students who are going to emerge into solo or small practice, along with more immediate practical advice. I'm not sure a class in law school is going to change much either, and as I said, I'm open to ideas--and, as you write on your blog, I ought to hear them from practicing lawyers rather than just from teaching colleagues. I would still rather see something like this than nothing at all, though.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 8, 2012 10:13:55 AM

Again, thanks, as you've raised a couple of interesting (and more specific) issues. First, we exist in a mentoring void at the moment, an issue that was the subject of an article I wrote (with Dan Hull) for the ABA Journal. It has yet to appear, even though they asked for it a year ago. Go figure.

As to new lawyers being one dimensional in their approach to law, I completely agree, and believe that this is part of what mentoring needs to address. There has long been a tendency for young lawyers to be tactically simplistic as they start out in their careers, and I believe this has been exacerbated by the internet, where interest groups promote approaches to law that lack depth and nuance.

Some new lawyers are overly adversarial, while others are overly conflict averse. Neither makes for a good lawyer. Addressing this overly simplistic understanding should be something we all do, and continue to do until they mature into effective lawyers.

Posted by: shg | May 8, 2012 10:33:37 AM

Your post inspired a law student to write about "a course on career paths" from a student perspective. The student author focuses on the need for law schools to help law students build careers long term, rather than score one internship or the initial job, and the student author also introduces the need for resources for law students who do not want to practice law after law school. We would appreciate your comments and feedback on the post: http://lawschooled.org/?p=1597. Thank you.

Posted by: Law Schooled | May 10, 2012 9:53:37 AM

Thanks for your comment, and your own post, which I read. I would say I agree emphatically about your first point re long-term careers, and I agree with your second point as well, although I take no definite position on how and where the resources to do this should be devoted.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 10, 2012 9:58:50 AM

They could start by updating property and contracts courses. Do we really need to spend the first semester of law school learning the law of 16th Century England?

Posted by: SFJD | May 14, 2012 4:03:57 PM

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