Yes, you can modify the existing legal education model for aspiring lawyers to equip them with the critical combination of knowledge and skills to make them practice ready and “get ahead of the curve” for the conventional practice of law, albeit in a limited niche market, upon graduation from a three year law degree program. A recent study by the University of Denver Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Section of the University of New Hampshire School of Law’s (UNHL) Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program (DWS) is proof positive. Ahead of the Curve – Turning Law Students Into Lawyers documents an incubator for legal education set up by UNHL in conjunction with the New Hampshire Supreme Court and State Board of Bar Examiners.
The architecture and framework for the program took its cue from the Carnegie Foundation’s recommended blueprint for legal education Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law “In Educating Lawyers, we called for a greater degree of intentional integration among what we designated the three “apprenticeships” or key components of legal education: the teaching of law as a mode of thinking, the development of practical competence, and the fostering of professional commitments and identity.”
The LSAT is, unfortunately, one of the primary admissions criteria to UNH Law; a limiting factor for an outside the envelope learning experiment. Consequently, the student enrolment is representative of the standard mix at an ABA accredited law school. First year students take the traditional foundation/introductory law courses. A holistic “weeding out” process creates a DWS stream of students who will gel in a high performance team environment for the second and third year.
The DWS curriculum isn’t radically different from what students encounter in a traditional JD program. To a certain extent this is undoubtedly dictated by the confining American Bar Association (ABA) law school accreditation curriculum requirements. However, the DWS program adds value through curriculum design and delivery. DWS scholars are assigned to teams that are taught and graded by interactive skills focused teaching by faculty, and mentored/assessed through ongoing feedback by a combination of judges, lawyers and state bar examiners.
There are three forms of assessment. Formative assessment focuses on feedback from a number of perspectives; academic by professors, professional from judges and lawyers and regulatory from state bar examiners. Reflective assessment requires students to evaluate their own performance and develop plans to address weaknesses. An overall summative assessment of both course work and DWS program performance is undertaken by faculty and state bar examiners prior to the student being awarded a degree and exempted from state bar exams.
The DWS program is human resource intensive and requires external parties such as judges and practicing attorneys to juggle major professional commitments with student mentoring and feedback. Although external parties were quite willing to make a professional commitment to work in a pro bono capacity to test a proto type in a professional learning incubator, the study acknowledges that getting long- term commitments is extremely difficult. Moreover, “A related question raised by students and administrators is whether this degree of community participation is feasible in a community larger than New Hampshire, with fewer small law firms and more than one law school.”
But there’s an even more pressing concern that needs to be addressed. As admirable as the DWS program is in its entirety, and the report is well worth the read for insight into how to go about adapting conventional legal education to a practice – orientation focus, at the end of the day and beginning of their careers these students are equipped to enter the legal services market with a professional skills set to practice law in a in a niche that has limited value.
I had the opportunity to meet with the Head of the City University of London’s leading edge LLM Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and review it’s curriculum It’s program architecture and methodology is focused on training graduates of professional LLB legal education programs to be barristers, the court litigation specialists. Students are taught high-level litigation oriented courses that span the range from document drafting to advocacy in their broadest contexts by law professors and mentored by professionally qualified barristers with court expertise in an intensive one- year program. Barristers represent an estimated 10% of the overall UK legal profession given their essential but limited practice niche in the legal services market.
The DWS program bears a remarkable resemblance to the UK BPTC program. And that, in summation, is the core problem with efforts to reform legal education by focusing on fine- tuning an architecture that is essentially niche focused and of limited value in the new legal services market. The current legal education model that prevails in North America is strong on equipping graduates to become knowledgeable about practicing law in a context that is jurisprudentially driven while woefully deficient on becoming proficient in the design and delivery of innovative legal services, increasingly in a multi-disciplinary context. The Carnegie Foundation’s prescription for educating lawyers was researched and written at the end of the era of the insular legal profession. Efforts to emulate it’s architecture and framework as the foundation for reforming legal education will risk leaving the legal profession behind the curve. The following excerpt from the Canadian Bar Association’s CBA Legal Futures initiative- Futures Transforming the Delivery of Legal Services in Canada is representative of a road map for getting “ahead of the curve”.
There will be no one perfect way to become a lawyer in the future, nor to keep current as an existing lawyer in order to meet client expectations. Lawyers will likely require a broader set of skills than those currently offered by academic, licensing, and post-call education and training organizations. There will be a need for more flexibility and choice in legal education and training – from what is offered, to who may provide it and how it can be accessed. 
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