Reforming Legal Education

A longtime attorney would probably feel right at home if he/she were to return to law school today. Aside from the proliferation of laptops for notetaking, very little reform or modernization has occurred, despite significant changes in communications, technology and in the legal market. Recently, however, there appears to be some momentum towards at least examining potential reforms, which could benefit law students, their future clients, and the legal field in general.
According to The Economist, the average US law student graduates with over $100,000 in debt. This has several consequences. Some qualified students are no doubt deterred from attending. Those who do attend understandably want to repay their debts as soon as possible, and thus, a large pool of students vie for a small number of high-paying “big firm” jobs, while often ignoring non-profit organizations or government positions. Also, many graduates end up working as “nuisance-lawsuit” filers, which both increases the costs of our tort system, and discourages businesses from hiring and investing.
Some proposed reforms include allowing students to take the bar examination after their second year of law school. Northwestern University already has such an “accelerated J.D.” program. This would reduce student tuition by 1/3, and as The Economist points out, many law schools tend to have filler courses during the third year, such as “Nietzsche and the Law.” If a law student can pass a state’s bar examination after his/her second year of school, it is hard to see the point in requiring a third year. A related reform idea is to create or improve undergraduate law or legal studies curricula, so that future law students can take courses that provide credits toward a J.D. By reducing student debt, these reforms should result in lower attorneys’ fees and increased access to legal services.
Lastly, another reform is movement away from the dreaded Socratic Method of teaching and towards practice-oriented courses.  The Socratic Method of teaching is when professors “cold call” students during lecture to answer questions that often have no correct answer (I am sure many of our colleagues share our memories of sitting in class, with head down, praying to various higher powers that the professor would call on some other hapless victim):

The supposed justification for the Socratic Method is to force students to think quickly. No doubt that there is some veracity to this. However, reformers increasingly argue that students should instead be subjected to a “real-world” education, such as by interacting with practicing attorneys and by working on real scenarios they are likely to find in their future career.  Imagine that – practice by doing.