Tag Archives: experiential legal education

Law School Education

I feel compelled to share this really great article on law school education from the New York Times.

It’s funny too.

It doesn’t give all the solutions but David Segal, the journalist, is quite good at pointing out some of the problems.  And it covers a range of issues concerning legal education’s failure to prepare students for actually practising law.

Below are 3 extracts from the article, which you can read in its entirety here:

“Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England. Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like “A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory.”

“We should be teaching what is really going on in the legal system,” says Edward L. Rubin, a professor and former dean at the Vanderbilt Law School, “not what was going on in the 1870s, when much of the legal curriculum was put in place.”

“Another problem…there are few incentives for law professors to excel at teaching. It might earn them the admiration of students, but it won’t win them any professional goodies, like tenure, a higher salary, prestige or competing offers from better schools. For those, a professor must publish law review articles, the ticket to punch for any upwardly mobile scholar.”

It is my observation that while graduate schools are beginning to wisen up and focus on how people will be doing things as much as what they will be doing, law schools globally seem behind the curve.  This means that business school curricula now contain extensive courses the preparation of great business leaders who are prepared for the psychological and ethical challenges. Yet law schools still focus 99% of their attention on learning law – content as opposed to process.  There is growing dissatisfaction as lawyers globally realise they have not been adequately prepared for the challenges of the legal profession.  This is leading to a rise of services such as Lawyer Coach, which arise to meet the needs of lawyers actively seeking training in the skills they did not receive while studying. Granted, some of these are skills only suitable for lawyers with developed careers. However there appears to be a growing number of lawyers who agree that we MUST start including leadership work, including further courses on ethics, into standard law school curricula.

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“Formal education in the law does not prepare lawyers for the moral challenges of the profession”

There is so much that South African Universities can learn from developments in the US and UK where law schools have been around so much longer. Yes, South Africa is different in some respects and it’s a unique legal system in a country that is partly third world and we shouldn’t just follow Eurocentric models yaddah yaddah…but it also makes no sense to re-invent the wheel. The SA legal system is based on a mixture of Roman-Dutch and English law and our legal education system is also very similar to that in Europe.  Therefore, if these countries are discovering that their legal education systems are failing to prepare lawyers for the challenges of lawyering in the 21st C, we need to sit up and take notice.

While many of our university law departments do have legal aid clinics which allow students practical experience at lawyering, there is still much work to be done on creating more innovative curricula.

As Magda Slabbert, Professor of Jurisprudence for Unisa points out in her paper on the Requirement of Being a Fit and Proper Person:

“Formal education in the law does not prepare lawyers for the moral challenges of the profession. The ultimate aim of legal training is to enable the student to become a successful attorney or advocate. Knowledge is important in order for the lawyer to be able to make a convincing case for either side in a dispute. –

BUT… 

“What this sort of learned cleverness does not require is either a developed capacity to judge what is right or a disposition to seek it”

(from Eshete A “Does lawyer’s character matter?”)

So what’s happening in the US that we can learn from?  Below are a few points from an article you can read in its entirety here.

  • Legal educators from more than 30 law schools across the country have joined together to make experiential legal education the norm and not just an afterthought.
  • Northeastern University School of Law offers an interesting example because, almost 50 years ago, it pioneered a cooperative model of legal education that integrates theory and practice by requiring students to fulfill all the traditional classroom work while also spending a year immersed full-time in practice settings as diverse as law firms; judges’ chambers; and prosecutor, public defender and legal aid offices
  • The group was formed to ensure that law graduates are ready to join the legal profession with a full complement of skills and ethical and social values necessary to serve clients and the public interest, now and in the future.
  • The symposium will bring together lawyers, judges, students, legal educators and others to begin to forge a new model for legal education and the profession.
  • There is growing recognition across the legal profession and in legal education that business as usual is not acceptable and the time is now to provide more and better educational opportunities for law students, who are the profession’s greatest assets. The alliance is adopting innovative curricula that combine theory and practice to help students puzzle through the challenges and ensure that the profession remains vibrant, dynamic and relevant. This group of legal educators is committed to educating students to hit the ground running, with experience helping clients, collaborating with colleagues, resolving disputes, facing adversaries, drafting documents and interacting with judges, so that these lawyers are ready to solve legal challenges right away.