In recent months, because of a number of professional endeavors, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with members of legal academia along with current law students and recent graduates. My overarching impression of these encounters is that law schools aren’t sufficiently preparing law students for 21st century law practice. This is especially so when it comes to technology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the vast majority of law schools are educating their students in a technology vacuum.
At first glance, this trend is perplexing since many law school deans readily acknowledge the impact of technology on the practice of law and the environment in which their graduates will be practicing. Despite this, very few law schools have implemented changes that integrate technology into the law school curriculum. Even those that have done so have barely scratched the surface by adding only one or two courses addressing the practical impact of technology on the practice of law, and instead have focused on offering courses that focus on the effect of new technologies on substantive areas of law.
In other words, most law schools deans are talking the talk but not walking the walk. This despite nearly universal acknowledgement of the rapid technological shift that our culture is undergoing. However, based on my recent conversations with members of legal academia, there are a number of explanations for this failure to keep up with the times.
First, there is a staunch resistance by many tenured faculty members to alter their curriculum. Because they are tenured they are immune from pressure to change with the times and are perfectly content to continue teaching as they always have.
Furthermore, many of them have been in academia for years and have little practical legal experience—and certainly very little have any recent legal experience to draw upon when teaching their students. So the effects of technology on the legal landscape are essentially theoretical to them.
And hiring practicing attorneys as adjunct professors on a large scale isn’t the answer either, since law schools are slaves to ranking systems like the one released annually by the U.S. News and World Report—systems which place high value on the perceived quality of tenured faculty and faculty resources.
In "The Lawyer Bubble," Steven J. Harper, a former Big Law attorney and now adjunct professor at Northwestern Law School, examines why most law schools—and large law firms—are failing to change course despite the obvious need to do so. Harper explains that because of monetary pressures and an increasingly competitive legal market, these institutions are placing a tremendous value on external rankings systems.
Because of this, instead of doing what's right for the long term-future of our profession and for the future careers of law school graduates, those in charge at these institutions are implementing short sighted fixes to increase their rankings instead of positioning themselves for long term success. And implementing 21st century technology solutions and training employees and students to use and understand them are decidedly long term investments—and ones that do very little to help increase next year’s rank. So, not surprisingly, technology falls by the wayside.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that not everyone is blinded by the rankings systems and some forward thinking members of our profession are taking steps to encourage law schools to better prepare law students and recent graduates for the practice of law in the 21st century.
For example, the “Foundations for Practice” project, organized by the Denver-based Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers program, focuses on improving legal education and closing the gap between how students are being taught in law school and the knowledge and skills new graduates need to succeed. The goal is to “identify the desired foundations for new lawyers, the models of legal education necessary to get us there, and the tools legal employers can use to make better entry-level hiring decisions.” (See link).
The new legal landscape for which this program seeks to prepare students is being undeniably shaped by the mobile and cloud revolutions. Law schools must rapidly implement new curriculums to include the use and effects of new technologies on the delivery of legal services; otherwise they’ll have failed at their obligation to equip new lawyers with the skills needed to practice law in the 21st century.
It’s programs like the “Foundations for Practice” that have the potential to shift the focus from law school rankings and effect much-needed change in law schools. Let’s hope it’s not too little, too late.
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