Monday, August 15th, 2011...12:00 pm

the impact of a skills-based legal education

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NB:  I do not have a JD and other than sitting in on a few 1L courses, I have not taken part in much of the law school classroom environment.  What I do know is mostly from talking with students and from direct conversations with faculty.  I am fully aware that curriculum is not “hypothetical” and that actual cases are reviewed, and that skills are taught.  There is nothing “wrong” with today’s curriculum.  The difference between today’s curriculum design and one that is more skills-based is subtle yet important.  The value of understanding the subtle issues underlying and coming from a specific case is not at debate.  The usefulness of understanding how to build a case from scratch, how to file motions, and other practical, day-to-day activities is the basis of this post.

More and more, law firms are looking not just for graduating law students with the intelligence to make for good associates, but also ones that have the needed practical skills to start “producing” from day one.  This means familiarity with e-discovery systems, being able to dive deep in research while still being part of a team, and an understanding of concepts beyond just law – about how to be good professionals, with solid interpersonal skills and the self-awareness to succeed.

Accordingly, law schools either already have or should seriously consider a curriculum shift towards the development of these skills.  Obviously, the traditional foundation courses in Civil Procedure and Torts will never go away (though changes in the environment in which they are taught are another matter, and one addressed later in this post).  But clinics need to become part of the formal curriculum, rather than electives, and courses that show students how to put an actual case together, from cradle to grave, need to become a bigger part of a student’s educational experience.

This curriculum shift has no bearing on the importance of the traditional foundation courses nor does it give a long-term advantage to one student over another in the job market.   A student with experience on e-discovery tools will be very good at e-discovery, but will still need to work just as hard to master all of the other skills in order to succeed overall.  This might improve that student’s job prospects initially, but over even the short-to-mid-term an exceptional student will still rise to the top.  But perhaps an exceptional student that also has a solid grasp of operational skills will be that much more attractive to employers.

From an Ed Tech perspective, there is a bit of a chicken-egg issue, though one that also involves bold moves by deans and faculty.  Until a skills-based education is adopted as the foundation of pedagogical design, clinical work, cradle-to-grave building of cases and experience with the tools one will see at a firm will not gain prominence.  Until those types of programs and courses receive the full weight of the school’s support, a skills-based curriculum will not emerge.  And should that shift occur, it cannot be a slow transition – it must spring forth fully-formed, as did Athena if from Zeus’ brain, to provide an immediate and full impact on students.

But when this shift occurs – and in my opinion it will, or the school will become less and less relevant – Ed Tech folks need to be prepared.  Discussions about installing incredibly expensive e-discovery systems must be had, and consultations with faculty about different case-preparation tools will be critical.  Going paperless (or at least paper-light) comes into play on a massive scale.  Clinics will need tools that will make their processes more and more efficient, so that students spend less time worrying about where to put or how to access files and more time on filling out documents and going to proceedings and arguments.

This is a trend that, to me, is not only already happening at some schools but should be seriously considered at all.  For Ed Tech departments, we should be at least advocating for the analysis of business processes that supports the implementation of a skills-based education.  We should look at how clinics get their work done, how we can make those processes better, and put those solutions into play.  This will position ourselves most effectively for changes.

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