Why Law Schools Need to Change

Question: What should law school accomplish? 

Larry Kramer: So, you know, again, this is a really complicated story as well.  I mean, again, if you go back, modern legal education, which is, you know, three years in school, emerges only in the mid-19th century, maybe late-19th century.  It only becomes dominant in the early 20th century.  Before then, most lawyers are trained in an apprenticeship system, where you, you know, you find a lawyer and you work for that lawyer for some number of years—like the English still use this to a large extent—you follow the lawyer around, you learn that way, you take the bar, you become a lawyer on your own.

There was only actually historically a really tangential connection between legal education in school and the practice of law.  So law schools taught essentially one skill, one core skill for being a lawyer, which we refer to generically as we taught people how to think like a lawyer.  And that’s basically teaching them how to look at a set of facts and spot the legal problems, and then analytically break those problems down.  And it’s an essential skill, I mean, it’s really, you can’t do much without it, but with just that, you can’t practice law.

So the truth was, the apprenticeship system affectively continued because students would graduate, they’d have this degree, they would then go to a law firm and their first three or four years in the firm were in effect, an apprenticeship.  And that worked just fine, they would go to the firm, they’d wander around practice groups for three or four years, try out different things, learn, get a lot of training, and then settle into a practice really in their fourth year.  So it was more like medical school than people kind of realize, even though it wasn’t a formal residency model, and that worked just fine in the old system.  It works a lot less well when the changes, you know, begin to take place that we’ve been talking about.

So suddenly, if you need those first and second year associates to do a lot of, you know, billable hour generating work, you have less time to train them, you can’t really let them float around from practice to practice anymore, they come in, you need to slot them where you need them and get them, you know, billing hours right away doing document work or whatever, organizing large litigation, and so on.  And so, you know, that puts pressure back on the school to maybe do something a little more or different by way of preparing them.  On the other hand, within the law schools themselves, you know, the tradition that grew up over the 100 years was, this was the place to get a real intellectual understanding of law.  So, you know, the culture within the legal education environment was not at all one of preparing people to practice for law and then the debate gets framed in this funny way where law schools are intellectual environments, right?  We teach you to think deeply about law.  And we’re not going to be trade schools.  And of course, as long as that’s the framing of the debate, you know, that you learn the trade in the trade, that’s where you do that, it created a fair amount of tension as pressures grew to prepare students better to be able to hit the ground running when they reach the firm and do something more than they could do.

Because the fact of the matter is, they weren’t really prepared to do much more than the low level document work that they were now doing when they graduated from law school, because the schools had done so little to equip them.  So I think, you know, what’s happening in legal education is, we need to do more to prepare them to practice, but the mistake in the debate is the framing of it as we’re either intellectual environments over trade schools, when the truth is, there’s a wide set of skills that are intellectual skills, you know, that are the kinds of things that universities actually can specialize in and do very well, that are essential to the practice of law, that we have not been doing.  That we’ll prepare them better to be lawyers and that’s the set of skills that we need to fill in.

And the easiest way to think of them is, and if you think about all the changes that we talked about, what we need to do is we need to prepare them better to work with clients more quickly.  To be able to offer more, more value to a client than, you know, than they can offer, when all they know how to do is spot a problem on a set of facts that has already been developed for them and analytically break it down.

And so that’s, I think, where legal education needs to go.  What it needs to be is a place in which one does still get a deep, but also a broad understanding of the full range of analytical and judgment skills that make a great lawyer a great lawyer.

Recorded May 5, 2010

Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

The Stanford Law dean says the legal education system needs to do more to prepare students to actually practice. There are a wide set of intellectual skills that are essential for attorneys that we have not been teaching.

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