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Thought Experiment: Why Not A Teaching Law Firm To Increase Experiential Learning?

USBank Tower Richelieu Lecture Hall

As Mike Madison has noted almost two years ago, in general innovations in law school curriculum have not kept pace with business schools. That may be changing. Washington & Lee has made a splash by changing its curriculum to an experiential model. Irvine says it will embrace it. Vanderbilt, not to mention Harvard, University of New Mexico, Georgetown and others have versions of the idea in place. (Note that Northeastern’s Co-Op system has used an experienced-based approach for some time). These shifts may open the door to even more innovation. Still, underlying this move is a fundamental question: What should a law school be?

Many views can drive the analysis. Law firms, clients, students, and law faculties all have opinions on the matter. One answer is seen in a comment to Leiter’s post about W&L. The idea seems to be that a law student will be ready to practice on day one. In other words there seems to be a training gap. Law firms and clients want first year associates to be ready to go. Indeed, law practice might be shifting. As I noted before, some firms have changed how they handle first year associates by reducing or eliminating the billable hour requirement as way to improve associate retention. In its place comes a requirement to shadow associates and partners as a way to learn the job. Part of this change comes from large corporate clients who refuse to pay to train first year associates.

So law firms might be happier if students were fully trained. Clients have much the same view. Students are in the same place. Yet these demands may be irrational. A reflection on medical education helps see why. There is much to say regarding the way the two professions differ and how training varies. For now one reflect on these points. Medical students graduate with more debt than law students, enter residencies of about three to seven years at around $40,000/year, and then are fully trained to be in practice (note: a true general practice doctor takes one year of training though such physicians are increasingly rare).

Yes, I am suggesting that the idea that medical students’ clinical work is vastly superior to the externships, clinics, and the like that many law students undertake is a myth. Medical school may be more formal about these issues, but it is not a substitute for the internship and residency years. None of these points argues that law schools cannot improve these opportunities and their curriculum. Indeed, insofar as these changes will improve how the law is taught I applaud and hope to be part of them. Still, the point is to what end?

In short, a demand that law schools train a law student so that future employers will not have to train them is odd, for few, if any, professional schools operate on this model. Yet there may be a solution: a teaching law firm. Such a firm would have live cases and full time attorneys who teach as part of their jobs much like medical professors at teaching hospitals. Indeed, I believe there is a labor pool that would like such a position (think: of counsels). Ironically, big firms, small firms, and students may not like such an institution.

A teaching law firm will be a competitor. In some cases it may take on the high-profile cases of that a big firm might. In others, it may take on cases that solo and small firms might take. Students may not be pleased as they may be making less for the first few years. (Of course often one career path is to take a position with a D.A. or P.D., be paid a decent amount compared to a medical resident, be trained along the way, and then go to private practice for the big money).

Overall, however, insofar as there are gaps in service be they in public or private sector areas (i.e. more megafirms and more solo firms with fewer middle-sized firms able to help the business and legal needs of individuals and small businesses), a teaching law firm could fill that gap. Each firm would be able to meet market needs in the region. Furthermore, it may generate capital that could reduce fees for law school.

The possibilities are present. Will a law school take the chance and start one or affiliate with an existing practice? I think someone will in the near future. More on this idea and the general issue of legal education later.

Image 1: WikiCommons
License: Public Domain

Image 2: Wikicommons
License: GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

cross-posted at Concurring Opinions

Hat Tip and thanks: Mike Madison, Mike Carroll, Frank Pasquale, and Al Brophy have all induged me with time and feedback as I thought through these ideas. So I offer my thanks.