What’s Old is New Again, Legal Education Edition

“Law Students Leave Torts Behind (for a Bit) and Tackle Accounting” in the New York Times (@nytimes) is a jumbled but useful starting off point for this note about new and different modes of legal education.

The story, which describes a handful of new efforts to teach elementary accounting skills to law students, misses an opportunity to point out that (i) many law schools used to teaching Accounting, or Accounting for Lawyers, as a regular and even important part of their curriculum, but gave that up over the last 25 years or so as faculty recruitment and retention shifted to other things; that (ii) some law schools still teach the subject, and not in the “mini-course” or “short boot camp” format that the NYT describes.

The story then jumbles together newer programs like Brooklyn’s, that offer micro introductions to financial concepts, newer programs like CU-Boulder’s, that offer financial literacy training for law students as part of a longer and more deeply structured introduction to business practices for new lawyers, and programs that offer law students training in how businesses work (and how other organizations work) by embedding the students with the organization, via externships or otherwise. These approaches can be mixed and matched, but they represent three separate strategies, with different costs and benefits.

It’s also possible to argue that law schools shouldn’t be in this business at all, because “the real world” offers better and perhaps less pricey formats for this sort of training. Some large law firms offer it these days, though not all do.

My conceptual contribution to this topic is online at SSRN. Download another copy today, and share it!

My practical contribution (shameless promotion ahead) is the Innovation Practice Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, which weaves business literacy threads together in its own unusual way.  I explained the program yesterday to a colleague at a different law school:

[Our vision is growing] a new generation of SV-style flexible lawyers/legally-trained innovators, and entrepreneurs and to build that capacity across the [Pittsburgh] region not only for tech but for non-tech small business, not-for-profits, arts/culture/entertainment, and social enterprise.  So we’re not focused as much on helping clients; we’re focused more on growing a new legal culture. Programmatically, we work in partnership with a range of campus- and community-based enterprises (Pitt, CMU, and unaffiliated) to embed our students in teams with their peers in CS, engineering, business, and social enterprise/not-for-profits, where they learn about legal challenges and opportunities, give a bit of (supervised but non-confidential) legal guidance (entity formation, finance, IP, and employment law, mostly), and absorb the ethos of seeing how law and lawyers can enable economic development. Students from all disciplines are meant to “grow up together,” almost literally, and to see each other as partners (rather than as adversaries) from the beginning.  We also support law students as innovators/competitors in local business plan competitions.  We are piloting a leadership development classroom module, which I teach, which I hope will form the basis of a series of professional development courses organized along the lines of the program that Bill Mooz directs at CU-Boulder [the Tech Lawyer Accelerator], but without being focused on tech companies. And we offer weekly lunch-and-learn sessions with guests from the legal profession who have built careers doing unorthodox things in law, business, the nonprofit sector, government, and so on.

Underlying all of this is the sense that the classical or traditional model of the lawyer as a service professional working as a craftsperson for clients large and small is increasingly outdated, both in the sense that this is an ever-smaller portion of what most lawyers in private practice do, and in the sense that it is a fading model of employment and career development for our new graduates.  I don’t know what model will take its place (or, more likely, models – plural), but I want to do what I can to prepare my students in new ways so that they can succeed in whatever environment develops.

For more, read about the IPI at innovation-practice.net.