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The Lost Voice of Legal Education: A Student Perspective

The following blog post is written by Melissa Yatsko, Regent Law Class of 2016.

Melissa
Over the past several months, legal education has been attacked at various different levels.  This blog piece explores the recent articles from the New York Times and the plethora of responses that followed.

First, an introduction is needed.  I am a third year law student that happened upon a graduate assistant position for Professor Ben Madison here at Regent University School of Law.  It was through this opportunity that I became aware of and involved with the legal education reform movement that is spreading across the nation.  Part of my responsibilities is to engage in social media networking.  Thus, it was through these avenues that I learned of the articles being published in the New York Times.  The one of particular interest was David Siegel’s November 2011 article. 

I was astonished at some of the attention grabbing one-liners that were scattered throughout this piece.  Namely, the fact that law students are essentially paying for law professors to write scholarly articles that no one reads.  Additionally, the entire piece sought to shoot daggers at all law schools, as being inept at teaching law students what was needed most—lawyering skills. 

Now, I cannot sit here and say the contention that law schools need to be teaching “lawyering skills” is wrong.  It is not.  However, after becoming involved in legal education reform, I was optimistically joyed to come across, interact with, and begin collaborating with fellow reformers.  For instance, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (based out of the University of Denver and led by the Carnegie Report’s lead author, William Sullivan).  In essence, I was literally floored by the fact that this article left out one key factor—the very fact that legal education reform is occurring.  Change is not going to happen over night, especially when the Socratic Method of teaching has been utilized by law schools for over a century.  I will briefly offer an opinion here to those that believe change is not taking place fast enough.  If law schools were to push for the necessary changes (i.e., integrating practical skills application and professional identity components) overnight, then the changes would likely not last.  Anything forced has the potential for unintended consequences, no matter how lofty the original intentions were.  For example, forced and immediate changes would likely have the effect of being unnatural and merely on a surface level, as opposed to steadfast and true integrations.  It is probably good to remember the old adages here that good things come to those that wait and patience is a virtue.

Another insight I acquired by reading what seemed to be a never-ending stream of responses, whether as blogs, postings to Twitter, or published responses in the New York Times, was a clear lack of concern for what law students believed.  Yes, it is law schools that are charged with creating the curriculums, just as it is the law professors that are charged with imparting the knowledge needed to become an attorney.  However, legal education reforms are after all for the benefit of law students, right?  Therefore, where are the students’ opinions?  Why has no one taken the time to ask how we feel?  Has anyone thought to sit down with a law student and ask him or her what it is they want from their legal education?  I, in particular, want more practical skills training.  I do not expect to be taught everything there is to know practically about practicing law.  However, I do expect to be introduced to basic level practical skills as part of my education.

Additionally, Siegel, in his article, spoke with other attorneys, large law firms, and a few law professors to arrive at his conclusions.  Did he ask any actual law students what was being done at various law schools nationwide?  No is the short answer.  Also, one cannot spout off about law schools’ poor education without doing a thorough scan of all law schools.  There are, after all, over 200 hundred law schools in the United States.  Regent University School of Law is devoted to legal education reform and has also been emphasizing professional identity formation for years.  Washington and Lee School of Law has been reforming since around 2005.  William and Mary School of Law has also tried reforms.  These are simply a few schools in the state of Virginia.  Forty-nine other states still need to be assessed before making statements that law schools in general are not teaching “lawyering skills.” 

Despite all those that have clearly ignored the law students’ opinions, kudosmust be given to the Carnegie Report and Best Practices, as both of them didaccount for student opinions.  Given that both are leading authorities on legal pedagogy, this is fitting and well appreciated.

With all of this said, this is my call to all law students out there that care about their education to get involved and have a voice in the reform movement.  When students begin speaking up, since clearly we are not going to be asked, then our voices can collectively be heard.  This is an integral part of helping reforms take place nationwide within schools that still have not gotten a hint.  Together, along with other passionate law schools and law professors, we have the ability to put an end to articles like Siegel’s.  Law schools are notorious for competitiveness.  However, the competiveness must be put aside for the time being, and we must work together to bring about change that will last.

I urge all law students to start an organization at their school, get involved with already existing organizations, or join law blogs.  But most importantly, I simply urge students to speak up and tell legal academia what it is they desire most from their chosen law school.  Do not sit idle while the debates continue without us. 

3 comments:

  1. David Segal’s article brings in most of the Gordian Knots on the formal education of attorneys. Theory v. Practice, Professional Academics v. Teaching Practitioners, Teach v. Publish, etc. The fundamental problem is that the stable constituency at law schools is not the students, as they are usually gone pretty quick, nor the hiring firms, as their voice has little impact on the masses of applying student candidates. The stable (and therefore powerful) constituency is tenured faculty, and it would be odd for them to embrace a change that may put them or their lifestyle out of business. People in power simply refuse to deal with Gordian Knots through the classical method.

    So the critics can bring up beautiful arguments that make plenty of sense on how there should be fundamental changes in the way law schools are run, but they will hardly make any noticeable impact in the law school industry.

    There is, however, a glaring matter unmentioned in Segal’s article: bar pass rates. Students may or may not understand whether a particular law school will prepare them to be good at practical lawyering, but they can certainly read bar pass rates, and the next big hurdle in a law student’s horizon is the bar exam. So law schools may (and do) tend to shoot for higher bar pass rates, which is a good thing. Not great, but good.

    It would be great if law schools were aiming to produce well-rounded students with theoretical vision and practical focus. These well-prepared students would get excellent bar pass rates, not because that is where their training was directed, but because it would only be natural that such well-prepared students pass a rather meaningless standardized test. The problem is that such training would require excellent candidates to begin with, and a vast amount of resources, that neither law schools nor student candidates may be willing to pony up.

    So, since “great” is out of reach, we can certainly aim for “good.” The fact that we are aware of the problems is a large step in the process of addressing the issues.

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  2. Excellent post, Melissa. One of my major concerns stems from determining the purpose of law school. There seems to me, as a law student, an on-going struggle to define what a law school degree is. For example, the US Census defines a PhD as an academic degree and a JD and MD are professional degrees. However, law schools seem to be very oriented to an academic model and less oriented to a professional-training program. Imagine if medical schools simply did book work with their students and then sent them out into solo practice. It would be frightening for their patients to have book-only trained physician treat them. Yet, this is the exact model that seems to be prevalent in law school. Students spend three years in an academic institution, take the bar, and then are expected to be able to practice on their own with very little training in their chosen profession. The first step, I believe, in reforming legal education is to determine the purpose of legal education. If the purpose of legal education is to train professionals, then the coursework should largely be focused on that purpose.

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  3. In a similar vein, I think that with the shrinking demand for lawyers in the market coupled with the still rising price of tuition will be the drivers of significant change in the manner that law school is taught to this next generation of students. Because of the high demand for a legal education, law school have been largely insulated from any type change occurring in the larger society. Nevertheless, as fewer and fewer students take the LSAT, the competition for good students will increase dramatically. This competition will drive law schools--within reason and the boundaries of the ABA--to change their curriculum to meet the needs of the students. If the majority of the students seek a more professional/practitioner model for their education, more law schools will focus on developing that type of curriculum. Only the most elite law schools will be able to escape this inevitable market-driven force. I also suspect that prospective students and prospective employers will begin to have a larger role in shaping the future of American legal education. As with most things, it will be the market that will eventually determine legal education in the future.

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