Law School Abhors a Vacuum

Nicole Black’s latest piece has useful and important things to say about law practice and the state of legal education.

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.

She taps a rich vein here, but the resistance to teaching technology in law schools goes even deeper than she realizes.

Certainly “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,” but most deans have no idea what that means or what the practice of law is like for most lawyers. Deans don’t spend their time socializing with the struggling solo practitioners and small firm lawyers who stand to gain so much from using technology effectively; they socialize with partners in big law firms with deep donor pockets. If those lawyers have any contact with technology at all, it’s because they have large technology departments to do everything for them. Same with deans.

“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.” Also, most tenured faculty don’t see that technology has any real relevance to their teaching or the law. A law professor is one who uses Powerpoint in class is seen as technologically sophisticated, and they rarely do so on their own–an alarming number of them rely on assistants or IT staff to make their Powerpoints for them.

To the limited extent there is a general agreement that law schools need to change, most law professors see this as an opportunity to implement the same changes they’ve always wanted. Some faculty argue for more closely aligning legal education with the practice of law, while others just as strongly argue for even further estrangement from practice and closer alignment with the scholarly goals of universities. Just this morning University of Maryland Professor Paula Monopoli wrote about this in The Boston Globe:

And, indeed, modern law schools are hybrids — professional schools whose mission includes professional identity formation and analytical skill-building. But they are also intellectual centers where faculty are tasked with generating knowledge through legal scholarship. Thus, we are neither fish nor fowl to many of our colleagues in other schools on campus. That wasn’t much of a problem when our surpluses represented subsidies to those other schools, but now the power balance has shifted. We’ve got to respond to the new normal by leaving our silos in larger numbers to forge relationships with scholars and administrators outside the law school. To demonstrate our value and to prove that we fit into the core mission of the university, we need to move toward them in ways that we have historically resisted….

[W]e should rethink the training of legal academics. The vast majority of the legal professoriate has the same training and degree as the practicing bar. Nothing more than a JD is required to teach at an American law school. That three-year curriculum doesn’t include any training in traditional academic research skills like empirical methods. While a full-blown PhD may not be necessary, some additional training in standard research tools like statistical analysis would add intellectual rigor.

Like Rahm Emanuel, law schools never want to let a serious crisis go to waste. What we’re seeing in law schools today is a struggle among long-standing rivalries over the way legal education should be designed and whom it should benefit.


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