Legal Education Reform, But How?

The National Law Journal reports on a recent panel at the AALS conference on the need for changes in legal education. Readers will recall that Judge Cabranes also spoke at the same conference on the same topic, and he urged a return to traditional doctrinal classes and a reduction in “law and” classes. The National Law Journal article adds several more recommendations, such as adding a year of executive-education classes, recommended by the Susan Hackett, chief executive officer of consulting firm Legal Executive Leadership.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but a common theme of these recommendations seems to be that students should be more directed towards the practice needs of the recommender’s speciality area. Transactional lawyers tend to suggest more transactional training, judges suggest more doctrine, etc. I suppose that’s understandable: Like the blind men with an elephant, we assume that the corner of the legal world we experience reflects the legal market as a whole. Still, that trend makes me a bit skeptical that curricular reform is the answer to current problems in legal education. This aside about employment prospects for graduates of existing programs with new “innovative” curricula seems worth noting:

As ardently as law firm leaders and other practitioners say they want law schools to step up and better train lawyers, the legal hiring market has yet to signal that it recognizes the value of innovative teaching and curricula, said William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloom­ington who studies the profession.

“There’s no employer out there right now — not law firms, not the Department of Justice, not the ACLU — that are seeking out these graduates. These programs haven’t affected hiring patterns,” Henderson said.

Maybe that’s because employers haven’t realized the value of curricular innovations. But it might also be because curricular innovations have less of an impact on the skills and knowledge base of law school graduates than their proponents realize.