Thoughts on American Legal Education: Past, Present and Future
As a professor and administrator at a public law school, I have witnessed firsthand widespread changes in the legal market for our graduates, and I have observed how that transformation has affected how and what we teach our students. Some of the disruption in the legal market was undoubtedly hastened by the Great Recession. But the truth is that law firms had already turned to computer programs for document review, were increasingly relying on contract lawyers, and had begun outsourcing legal work to India and the Philippines well before the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Moreover, innovations like Legal Zoom and other do-it-yourself online services had likewise already gained a foothold before the economic crisis hit. The shifting landscape of the legal economy may have been hastened by the past decade's economic turmoil, but change itself was inevitable. And these changes have forced law schools to consider ways of transforming the delivery of a legal education. The chain of causation is inescapable. As clients have found new ways to get legal services, they have exerted downward pressure on billing, which has created changes in the economics of law practice, which in turn has meant fewer well-paying law jobs. Add to this new reality skyrocketing law school tuition and graduate debt loads, fewer law school applicants, smaller class sizes and less tuition income for law schools, and the need for some degree of rethinking the modern law school is inevitable. But, as you can imagine, institutions do not transform themselves easily. Metamorphosis is difficult, even assuming we decide on exactly how it is that we want to change. That said, you will be hard-pressed to find an American legal academic who does not recognize that the old way of doing things, of asking students to abide three years of casebook study, podium lecturing and Socratic questioning, with a small dose of experiential learning, are no longer, in and of themselves, adequate to provide a meaningful education for tomorrow's lawyers. Before I broach today's challenges and explain what we are doing at Northern Illinois to meet those challenges, I want to look backwards toward the origins of modern legal education.
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