A Window On the State of Legal Education

A Window On the State of Legal Education

By Katie Vloet
Photography by Leisa Thompson

In Michigan Law's first year, 1859–60, students could choose from a total of 13 courses, including Criminal Law, Easements, Domestic Relations, and Contracts. The Law Department, as it was called then,did not have its own building. Three part-time faculty members taught 90 students who pursued the two-year degree. A college degree was not required for admission.

A century and a half later, the state of legal education at Michigan Law and at institutions around the country has changed in nearly every way: a far greater variety of classes, many more faculty, the requirement of a degree for admission, three years to earn a JD rather than two.

Beyond that, what can be said about the state of legal education, both at Michigan Law and at law schools around the country, from the top tier on down? What is a degree worth? Are students well prepared to practice law when they leave the safe confines of the classroom? What are schools doing well, and what could they do better? Here, we explore these questions, with insights from experts on legal education.

Is it worth it?

That's the question asked on nearly every law-related online forum and blog, in The New York Times, and even in the corridors of law schools in recent months. With the downturn in the economy and less certainty about high-paying jobs, is it worth it for students to accumulate huge law school debt?

The answer for many observers depends on whether the law school in question is a top-tier law school or not. Of the 200 ABA-approved law schools in the United States, not all are equal in quality and value.

"Different schools have different missions," Dean Evan Caminker points out. "Some, like ours, have fairly broad and general educational goals, such as analytical thinking and leadership, in addition to vocational goals. Other schools, with primarily a local or regional clientele and focus, are more like purely vocational schools in that nearly everyone there is simply trying to get a better job.

"For the latter schools, the negative impact on earning potential of the economic downturn might give students considering attending those schools some pause. I could imagine an appreciable number of law applicants determining, upon careful reflection, that the kinds of law jobs they are likely to secure upon graduation are neither so intrinsically interesting or fulfilling, nor so remunerative, that going into significant debt for law school really makes sense."

The answer to the question of "is it worth it," suggests Kent D. Syverud, '81, depends on one's motivation for attending law school. "What's going to happen now, because law school is so expensive, is people are going to have to think a lot harder about law school and what they want to get out of it. There's a lot of speculation about whether there is a bubble in which people are not willing to pay the current tuition in order to get a legal education," says Syverud, a former Michigan Law professor and associate dean, and current dean of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

Is it worth it?

"A law degree is a great thing to get if you have a passion for law, and some graduates will do very well with it and earn high salaries. Others will be quite happy. Not everyone will become wealthy.

"The past 25 years have been a particularly successful time for law schools and lawyers from top law schools, but that period was not constitutionally guaranteed to last forever," says Syverud.

Richard Matasar, dean of New York Law School and president of the board of the American Law Deans Association, seconds the notion that students should be asked about their motivation for attending law school. "You want to solve problems, help people—that's great. If your primary motivation is wealth, I'll tell you this isn't the right field."

Matasar—whose school was used as a focal point for The New York Times in an article about the economics of law school, and whose school was in the news even more recently as one of several involved in a class-action lawsuit by its alumni—has pushed for reforms in the ways that law schools educate students, while also explaining the value of a law school education beyond a new graduate's starting salary. He points out that he tells every student "that going to law school is among the most important financial decisions they will ever make, that the job market for students outside the top 10 percent of their graduating class is tough, and that 90 percent of them are guaranteed not to be in the top 10 percent of their class."

For those who make the decision to attend, law schools need to prove the value of the education and the degree. That could—and should—mean adding to the scope of a law student's education, Matasar points out. Teaching theory is still vital, but so is real-world, practice-based instruction.

"We're all worried about the same thing: the value of the education against its cost. Whether we're delivering the best quality we can in order for them to be professionals when they graduate. Adding value to society," he says.

Law schools are very good at producing scholarly research and contributing to the justice system, he notes, and graduates of schools such as Michigan Law undeniably have added great value to society, Matasar adds.

Preparing Students for the Real World

The website Answers.com poses a question: What qualifications do you need to become a lawyer? One of the answers states: You need a law degree in most states and then you need a license to practice law. The only training in most places is what you get on the job.

True, that has been the case for many law graduates in the past. But some law schools are working to add to students' options so they are better prepared to practice when they graduate.

Clinics are still one of the best ways for students to obtain experience—one reason Michigan Law has expanded its clinic offerings in recent years (see story, p. 18). Student enrollment in clinics here has doubled in the past five years, with student-practitioners representing children, families, small business owners and not-for-profit agencies, the wrongly convicted, those held against their will by human traffickers, and organizations making cross-border deals in international transactions.

Preparing Students for the Real World

As Caminker points out, Michigan's clinics don't just train people interested in specific aspects of litigation, but are good at teaching generalizable skills. For instance, a student in one of the transactional clinics may well use what she has learned when she is working on an international deal for her law firm.

"Clinics are the best thing we can do in law school to provide students with practical experience," says Matasar. "But it's hard to scale a clinic so everyone can get that experience. And on some level, it's still pretend, since you have the safety net of a faculty member and you aren't completely on your own."

They also are expensive, in large part due to their low student-faculty ratio. At Michigan Law, however, many clinical professors also teach other courses with higher student-faculty ratios, notes Bridget McCormack, associate dean for clinical affairs and codirector of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. "Our leadership is getting a lot of bang for their buck with us."

Besides, clinics provide an experience like no other, and they're worth the cost, Syverud believes. "Clinics are the best capstone I can imagine for a legal education. The best law schools are going to provide that capstone experience for all the students who would like it, in spite of the big cost."

Beyond clinics, many doctrinal classes at Michigan Law now are paired with practice simulation classes (see story, p. 17). Michigan's Legal Practice Program provides each first-year student with individualized instruction in legal research, analysis, writing, and other skills necessary for the practice of law. Additionally, Michigan and other law schools are increasing their emphasis on internships and externships.

"I think experiential learning is going to continue to expand and improve. What I see expanding even faster is experiential learning through externships," says Syverud. Clinics, externships, and increased opportunities for experiential learning are all necessary "as a route to employment after graduation."

Worldly Education

More than a century ago at Michigan Law, in 1905–06, students could sign up for Roman law or Spanish law. That was the beginning, and the end, of international offerings that year.

Today, top law schools offer courses on topics such as international trade law, public international law, and international tax law, as well as country-focused classes on Japanese, Chinese, or Indian law. Caminker notes that Michigan Law has recruited U.S.-based faculty who are experts on these topics, as well as William W. Cook Global Law Professors, who visit from tenured positions in prominent educational institutions around the world and teach at the Law School regularly. Even Roman law is still taught, now by Bruce Frier, the John and Tessa D'Arms Distinguished Professor of Classics and Roman Law.

That's just the start of the international reach. More than 1,300 Michigan Law alumni now live in countries other than the United States. Many obtained their overseas appointments through contacts they made at the Law School, and such relationships are vital when building a strong international presence.

"For the best schools, the ability to have a placement network anyplace in the world will be what is expected," Syverud predicts.

Students and faculty have access to international experiences without ever boarding a plane. With videoconferencing, for instance, students in Ann Arbor can be in the same virtual classroom as their counterparts in India (see related story, page 41). "Technology," Syverud notes, "will facilitate the globalization of legal education."

The globalization of teaching and practicing law is happening at a rapid pace, and many believe that a legal education today isn't complete without a strong international component, one of the reasons that Michigan was the first top law school to require a course in Transnational Law starting in 2001.

"We are living increasingly in a flat world, certainly an interconnected set of societies," Matasar notes. "Almost all business has some sort of international component to it. We used to kid about who's an international lawyer—who are these people? These days, every lawyer is an international lawyer."

Much More Than Career Training

Caminker hears from alumni from time to time who worry that an increased focus on skills-based education means a retreat from the heavily doctrinal instruction they received as students. Have no fear, he assures them.

"Michigan Law is every bit as intellectually rigorous as ever," says Caminker. "We still expect and demand students to be engaged, to be challenged when they fail, to learn using the Socratic method.

"Maybe the biggest change is that, 20 or 30 years ago, a relatively high percentage of upper-level classes were lecture-oriented, basically providing just a flow of information from the faculty to the student. Today we have more of a give-and-take between faculty and students, especially in the second and third years. What we really have seen isn't a retreat from a broad legal education; it's an expansion of opportunities."

Professor Sherman Clark experiences the back-and-forth interaction with students whenever one of his Torts or Evidence classes meets, and many of his colleagues use a similar approach. "We focus on authentic conversation instead of gamesmanship with the students," he says. Don't misunderstand; professors are plenty tough, he points out, but "none of them are trying to use fear as motivation."

Clark also is ready with a rejoinder if anyone wants to bring up the article in The New York Times, about whether law school is worth it. "They miss a large part of the point. The sole value of law school is not job training. It's not just a ticket to a market. Yes, it's great career training, but it's also great education more broadly. It is, at least here at Michigan, a genuine intellectual experience—a way of developing habits of mind and critical reasoning skills which are valuable to us as human beings as well as useful to us as lawyers.

"It's not one or the other. That's the genius of the Michigan Law School; our mission has always been, and still is, both about training you for a job and helping you think well and fully about our world and how we live together in it."

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