Current law school curriculum provides students with the theoretical base they need to pass the Bar, however, today’s law schools can make the most of the significant changes roiling the legal industry — a tighter job market, emerging technologies and the increasing use of legal process outsourcers — by turning them into opportunities to make law students better lawyers.
To help identify the greatest opportunities, Thomson Reuters conducted 30 in-depth interviews with third-year law students, law firm hiring managers and new attorneys; analyzed the results and identified six ways law schools may be able to improve curriculum to best prepare law students for today’s practice environment.
1. Include more diverse experiential learning
According to the Thomson Reuters study findings, law schools currently offer experiential learning opportunities but on a limited basis, making it difficult for students to participate. While respondents who had participated in externships, clinics and other experiential programs considered them extremely valuable, the majority of respondents identified scheduling conflicts as a major challenge. Law schools can make experiential learning activities more widely available and make participation mandatory — with a strong focus during the third year of law school — to help ensure that students are practice ready.
2. Prepare students for transactional practice
A common concern among all interview respondents groups is that law schools focus on litigation at the expense of transactional practice. One hiring manager noted, “For transactional matters, they [new hires] absolutely don’t have the skills. Drafting and doing deal work, we have to train them on all of that.”
Law schools can help students by expanding curriculum to provide a stronger introduction to the specific underlining subjects of transactional law, and by incorporating more experiential learning programs that focus on drafting documents, regulatory research and structuring a deal. Expanding the curriculum by incorporating opportunities to draft and to understand corporate and transactional documents on a more regular basis would give students a better understanding of transactional law.
3. Focus on the business side of law
Students’ lack of exposure to fundamental business principles affects both law firm management as well the ability to understand clients’ business environments. In addition, many young lawyers need to be shown that they are going to work for a business, which requires administrative and management skills to be successful.
This presents an opportunity for law schools to integrate skills like time tracking and billing into assignments and clinics, and offer law firm management courses. As a young associate noted, “Understanding how to bill your time would have been helpful. I didn’t know how much billing is scrutinized, how to properly articulate what you’re doing so that clients aren’t upset.”
By integrating time and billing procedures into the curriculum as well as offering more experiential learning activities, law schools could help alleviate new associates’ anxiety.
4. Expose students to legal processes and case management requirements
Externships and internships introduce students to litigation and transactional processes, yet most still lack knowledge of the detailed steps, common pitfalls and strategies to overcome when managing cases.
The benefits of incorporating time and billing and case management into curriculum and clinical experiences would be two-fold. For example, ensuring that students understand motions to dismiss by requiring them to draft one would help law schools meet the assessment requirements, while giving students hands-on experience.
5. Emphasize interpersonal and advocacy skills
Activities such as trial teams, mock trials and clinics help law students develop advocacy skills, yet new attorneys need more exposure to mediation, negotiation, oral argument, and trial opening and closing. Even though some law firms stress these skills in new hire training, it can still be challenging for new attorneys to learn interpersonal skills on the job, whether in dealing with senior attorneys or managing client relationships.
This is another area where mandatory clinics and externships, as well as integrating hands-on experience into existing curriculum, can help law students hit the ground running at law firms.
6. Require proficiency with legal technologies
Exposing students to the range of legal technologies used in practice — beyond research tools — also translates to less on-the-job training for new associates. Incorporating legal technology into relevant courses, such as document management or document assembly tools in a drafting class, would make for a smoother transition from third-year law student to new hire.
Law schools can make the most of these opportunities to best position new grads to make an impact from day one. Better preparing law students will involve a combination of programs, curriculum enhancements and outside partnerships that embed technology, legal processes, client management, the business of law and transactional law throughout the law school experience. This evolution of law schools will help foster the critical interpersonal and professional skills in law students that are so valued in successful new associates.
All of the Thomson Reuters interview respondent groups agreed that law schools should update course work and offer more experiential learning programs. Thomson Reuters identified four law schools already integrating practice-ready skills into their curriculums. In an upcoming series of case studies, Thomson Reuters will share their stories and explore how they’re shaping law students and law firms.