Beyond ‘Thinking Like a Lawyer’ – New Podcast Looks at Changes in Law School Curriculum

Should we anticipate saying good-bye to the traditional law school classroom experience, famously depicted in movies, television and shared by legions of 1Ls who have endured it while learning to “think like a lawyer?” Not quite, though there’s a lot of talk these days about changes in the legal profession — and how law schools should respond.  The debate centers on the value and relevance of the traditional law school curriculum and is prompted in large part by the dismal economy in recent years, the shedding of tens of thousands of legal services jobs, and the changing demands of legal employers showing an increased reluctance to underwrite the costs of training recent law graduates.

According to a January post in The National Law Journal, the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in Washington a few months ago drew nearly 3,000 educators and many law schools have some type of plan for curriculum innovation.  These include ”a wider array of clinics, harnessing technology in simulations and student projects, and teaching transactional lawyering skills.”  And, more and more law professors are focusing scholarship on ways law schools should respond to the shifts in the profession.

The question is what balance should be struck between traditional law school curriculum (steeped in theory and books) and a more practice-based skills development.  Should curriculum changes be incremental – and include modest changes such as additional clinics and externships? Or should there be more sweeping reforms – where subjects like executive management, business skills, legal technology and behavioral management are taught?

Law School Podcaster is devoting an entire podcast to this important topic.  Our latest show, Beyond Thinking Like a Lawyer: What Changes in Legal Education Mean for Students features the following leading experts on this topic:


Law School Transparency’s Co-Founder and Policy Director, Patrick J. Lynch, says increased skills training is something every law school’s looking at, to improve the services they offer. “I think for many that where they’re going to come down on that is that they have to provide some improvement in the way that they actually train people to practice law. A good example of that is the rise of solo practitioner sort of prep courses, where they prepare people on the chance that the only option to enter the legal profession is to hang out the shingle, that schools are now offering better training, so that people can actually do that right from the get-go. And I think that’s a great example of a really practical skill training method that is probably very necessary at a lot of law schools to do. I think that that sort of thing, it can be very helpful, I think, looking at… we’ve spoken with a number of law schools that are working more with local attorneys to develop mentorship programs, and actually get students very early on during law school really socializing and getting to know and pursuing internships and legal work with lawyers in the community, which I think is a great way to sort of supplement the traditional in-course curriculum with the type of networking and skills training that you really need to succeed in this profession.”

Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William D. Henderson says additional skills training can give law school students a broader scope for future positions. “I think that there is some usefulness towards skill training in terms of legal writing, some litigation-type training, some transactional drafting-type training. But I also think it needs to go beyond that to focus on collaborative skills, teamwork-type skills, interpersonal skills, communication, effectiveness, trust building, listening skills. I think that these are more transferable and are going to allow law school graduates to be effective in a variety of professional contexts, not just litigation-associated or transaction-associated at a major law firm.”

Don’t expect law schools to completely abandon any time soon the core curriculum that has been the mainstay of earning your law degree.  Most law schools are just beginning to look at adding pilot programs and new opportunities for students to develop real-world skills and knowledge about the legal profession.

Not surprisingly, cost is a factor.  Practice-based training is expensive, says Paul Schiff Berman, Dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor at Law, George Washington University Law School.  “One of the ironies of the criticisms of law schools over the last year or two is that people are simultaneously criticizing schools for having tuitions that are too high, and at the same time criticizing schools for not offering enough practice-based training, given that the practice-based training is the most expensive training that we do, because it requires the lowest student-faculty ratio. So it is expensive to do this work, but I think it’s crucial. So, I’ve made a tremendous investment both in creating the professional development course in the first year, creating some more clinical and quasi-clinical experiences, creating a dedicated mentoring and alumni networking coordinator, and also we’ve created various programs at the back end to help students work their way into jobs and move into jobs in the public sector.”

Tune in to the full show to hear more!