It takes a thick skin to be a legal educator these days, as anyone who reads newspapers or law blogs can attest. Law schools seem to have become everyone’s favorite whipping boy. I briefly questioned claims about the supposedly declining value of a JD in my recent state-of-the-school letter. A still more persistent criticism, however, has been that we’re not properly preparing students for practice, and I’d like to respond to that complaint as well. Many critics seem bothered by the fact that faculty do scholarship, as if that’s a waste of time and money. It’s a disturbing (not to mention misplaced) critique but only indirectly related to whether law schools provide an adequate education. It needs a reply, which I will offer in the next issue’s letter. Right now, I want to focus on professional education.
The most striking thing about the criticisms is that, so far as I can tell, the complaints come mostly from people who have little idea what law schools today actually do: people who assume that we still look like we did 20 or 30 years ago (when they were law students). We don’t. On the contrary, the professional education law students get today is far superior to the one I got in the early 1980s, which really did look like what the commentators are criticizing: three years of large Socratic classes with only an occasional academic seminar for relief. But law schools have been growing beyond that for years.
It is true that tenured and tenure-track faculty still teach a broad array of doctrinal classes in the traditional way. We do so because it remains as efficient and effective a method as anyone has found to teach the overarching theoretical structure of a field. Faculty also teach courses and seminars of a more academic nature, on everything from legal history to interpretive theory to the relationship of law to disciplines like economics, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. But surely that’s not a bad thing. Rather, it’s a critical part of what makes law interesting and rewarding to study—not to mention what justifies the continued description of ours as a uniquely “learned profession.”
I agree it would be bad if law schools offered nothing beyond this. But that, fortunately, is not the case. To begin with, most law schools now offer a broad choice of advanced courses taught by thoughtful and experienced practitioners. These classes, which are integral to the curriculum and begin the process of moving students from theory to practice, typically account for a third or more of the offerings.
On top of this, practically every law school now has a legal clinic, and these clinics are enormously more sophisticated pedagogically than was true in the early days, when they existed chiefly to provide free legal services to the poor. Most schools similarly have instituted a range of upper-level courses that teach professional writing and other critical practice skills—courses like trial advocacy, pretrial litigation, negotiation, accounting, corporate deals, real estate transactions, and much more. At the same time, many if not most teachers incorporate into their courses materials beyond and outside the conventional casebook—a practice that is rapidly expanding with the aid of new technology.
At Stanford, as you know, we have gone several critical steps further based on input from law firms, alumni, and friends of the law school with whom we spoke. While still offering a rich traditional curriculum, taught by some of the world’s leading legal scholars, we have integrated our program into the rest of the university—enabling law students to gain domain knowledge about their future clients and to develop sophisticated problem-solving skills. We also offer a distinctive clinical program that uniquely immerses students in experiential learning because it is full time during the academic term. Plus we have created an array of project-based courses, combining students from different disciplines into teams and requiring them to solve the kinds of problems they will face in their jobs. We are currently adding opportunities for law students to work on important public policy issues, something many or most lawyers do during the course of their career. Finally, we have developed special tools like SLSConnect and SLSNavigator to provide students with the information and guidance they need to make use of this vastly enlarged curriculum. Taken together, Stanford students receive a top-notch intellectual experience of law that simultaneously equips them to hit the ground running and deliver “value” to clients from the outset.
Do our graduates still need on-the-job training? Of course they do—as do graduates of every professional school. Could law schools generally be better at preparing lawyers for practice? Of course they could—again as could schools in every profession. There is, however, a very big difference between that and the exaggerated claims of our critics. That said, we remain open to constructive advice and suggestions for improvement.
But do the bloggers and pundits reflect the views of the profession generally? After all, if law firms and their clients seriously want change, they can bring it about easily enough. Like anyone seeking to modify behavior, they need merely employ the available sticks and carrots. What would a stick look like? Firms could announce that because law schools A, B, and C are not properly preparing graduates for practice, they will no longer hire from those schools. Do that for a couple of years and watch how fast the schools change. Or carrots: Firms could declare that, because law schools X, Y, and Z have taken steps to improve legal education, they will give preference to their students in hiring. Better still, they will provide financial support to encourage further programmatic changes. Combine the carrots with the sticks and, again, watch how quickly law schools change.
I am confident that Stanford would do fine, better than fine, if law firms took such action. (Note that a survey of 400 law firms ranked Stanford first in preparing students for practice.) But, of course, no firm has taken or even seriously considered any of these steps. How do you think we should interpret that? SL