The 21st Century Lawyer: Should Law Schools Change the Curriculum?
by JUDITH PRATT | ILLUSTRATION by ERIC HANSON
In March, the Law Advisory Council met at the offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Their discussion focused in part on the future direction of the Law School curriculum.
Stewart J. Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, noted that increasingly, universities were pushed to assess learning: to set goals, name the skills students should acquire, and measure the results at all levels. As a result of this trend, the American Bar Association has made two proposals: the first asserting that law schools should assure a sufficient depth and breadth of skills; the second actually listing required courses.
Schwab posed the question: “Is the model that we and other top law schools have used—that is, sending graduates to law firms who do intense training—is that changing?”
Schwab pointed to Dean John Garvey of Boston College who recently gathered representatives from law schools in New England to consider the ABA’s recommendations. Their conclusion: the recommended skills were biased toward litigation, although more than half the law profession focuses on other areas of the law.
Reflections turned to the question: Should law school focus more on skills than on theory? “Many people say we’re in a time of crisis in law schools and the law profession,” Schwab said. “Over time, do we need to rethink the type of skills we give our students so they become more valuable members of the legal profession? Or are these short-term responses to short-term crises?”
In general, the Council agreed that the Law School had the right balance of theory and practice. Many Council members noted that theoretical training was essential. The conversation was an interesting convergence of ideas, experience, and vision.
Neil Underberg ‘52 asserted, “We’re closer to a trade school than we ever were,” adding that litigation wasn’t the answer. “A lawyer’s job is to keep the client out of court,” he said. “Lawyers need to have an expansive breadth of knowledge, as advisors. But based on the numbers, graduates have to be able to hit the ground running. They don’t have time to learn, and the ABA is pressing that, telling us we’re a trade school.”
Arthur Rosenbloom ‘59 admitted that he had changed his view on this subject. “For many years I believed that law schools needed more practice oriented courses, and I still do. But, having listened to a recorded talk by Rudy Schlesinger that stressed the importance of theoretical training in the formation of a real lawyer, it’s my view that each is critically important, for it is legal theory that informs everything I do as a litigation economist.”
Kim K. Azzarelli ‘97 agreed. “When I first graduated law school, I wished I had a little more practical learning,” she said. “But the more I have practiced, the more I believe the theoretical underpinnings are the critical value-add. You have the rest of your career to gain skills training, which as we all know is constantly evolving.”
Katherine P. Ward Feld MBA ‘82, JD ‘83 contended that becoming a lawyer “is more about problem solving, and that process Cornell has done well, using the Socratic method. We can learn the rest.”
C. Evan Stewart ‘77, however, preferred a practical approach to teaching law. “As we expand faculty we become more intellectual, further away from practicing law,” he said. He would like to see all law schools “explain to students what the practice of law is really like, especially the care and feeding of clients.”
But Charles Matays ‘71 had another point of view. “I don’t think people can be taught how to manage people,” he said. “It’s like poker. It’s an ability, a talent.” Learning how to think like a lawyer is more important, he said, noting that, in his practice as a tax lawyer, the law changes continually, so trying to teach it in law school wouldn’t work. “Preparation for the bar exam and learning how to be a lawyer are antithetical,” he said.
Franci J. Blassberg ‘77 raised the practical benefits of skills training. “Courses that encourage the development of lawyering skills, such as trial advocacy and contractual negotiations, focus law students on what they might do in their careers as lawyers.” Such classes, she said, also “help students learn how to communicate with, and counsel, clients and to apply judgment.”
Marcia L. Goldstein ‘75, then chair of the Council, looked for a combined approach. With a fundamental legal education, she said, good lawyers can apply their knowledge to different situations. “That doesn’t mean you don’t offer trial advocacy and communication based courses,” she said. “No one is going to learn negotiation in a course, but communication is important.” She also noted that “students need to learn that this is a service profession,” and that students “could use more focus on interpersonal skills, because you’re going to use your law degree to be a leader in other areas.” To do this, she suggested that law schools adopt some element of the business school emphasis on teamwork.
Ward Feld seemed to agree and added, “If I were to do my own education differently, I would have taken time off between college and law school,” she said. “You get office savvy. Our most successful summer associates had full time work experience.”
Anthony Radice AB ‘66 JD ’69 summed things up. “Over the last forty years, the theoretical/practical mix has changed in all directions,” he said. “We’ve expanded curriculum greatly, but not at the sacrifice of the theoretical. We’re not more, or less, a trade school, but there are a lot more choices for the students. As I look at resumes, I don’t see people loading up on trade courses, but I see a great variety, concentrations in different areas. I think that’s healthy.”
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