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A law school for the 21st century

The Law School of the Future

Erwin Chemerinsky
Alston & Bird Professor of Law and Political Science, Duke University
Founding Dean, University of California, Irvine, School of Law (This is based on an article I wrote for the Daily Journal)

What will law school be like in 25 years? If the past predicts the future, there is little reason for optimism. I began law school in 1975 and law schools are remarkably unchanged over the last 30 plus years. Law schools still teach most courses in relatively large classes and emphasize reading of cases as a way of learning legal doctrine. Actually, this method of teaching is very successful at instructing law students in the substance of many areas of law and at developing skills of legal analysis.
But law schools do a poor job of teaching other skills. Few law students graduate ready to interview clients, draft contracts, negotiate deals, or argue in a court. Nor do most law students leave law school with other than a cursory understanding of economics or psychology or other disciplines that inform the law and that lawyers often use in their work.
What attracted me to being the dean of the new law school at the University of California, Irvine is the chance to create a law school for the 21st century. We have the enormous advantage of doing so at a wonderful university with a commitment of substantial resources by Chancellor Michael Drake and Provost Michael Gottfredson.
All too often when law school faculties discuss curricular reform it is about what courses to put in or take out of the first year. For example, I have been part of endless discussion of whether Constitutional Law should be in the first year curriculum and, if so, what aspects of it should be there. A trendy current innovation is putting International Law in the first year. Ultimately, little turns on which substantive law courses are in the first year as opposed to the upper level curriculum. Changing these around isn’t meaningful curricular reform.
My vision for a law school of the 21st century, and for our new law school in particular, has two key components: experiential learning and interdisciplinary learning. I also want to make sure that there are more opportunities for students to have smaller classes, especially in the first year. For example, I think that it is essential that all students have one course in a “small section” during both the fall and spring of the first year. In this course, there should be multiple evaluations of students’ work, rather than the usual one exam at the end of the semester with no feedback.
Experiential learning is crucial to doing a better job of training lawyers. In this way, law schools can benefit greatly from the example of medical schools which have medical students seeing patients as a core aspect of their education. I always have been baffled why medical schools realize that training doctors requires having their students see patients, while law schools believe that they can train lawyers who never see a client while in law school.
There are many ways that law schools can do a better job of experiential learning. I would require that every law student have a clinical experience or the equivalent. Clinics might focus on transactions, such as a clinic to help small businesses, or on administrative proceedings, such as an immigration clinic, or on litigation, such as a criminal defense clinic. Clinics can focus on literally every area of the curriculum. But the key is to ensure that all students have the experience of practicing law under close supervision.
Also, all students should be required to take courses that teach legal skills, whether it is drafting of documents, or negotiations, or advocacy. Last semester, I taught a large class on Federal Practice of Civil Rights and required the students to draft a complaint, develop a discovery plan, and engage in a negotiation. All students should have multiple experiences of this sort in law school.
Indeed, even in the first year, there can be more experiential learning. The traditional first year legal writing class can do a much better job of teaching lawyering skills. In addition, I would propose that students take a short course, before the start of the second semester, which they select among skills training in contract drafting, negotiation, trial practice, or appellate advocacy.
At the same time, law schools can do a much better job of providing interdisciplinary instruction to law students. The most important change in legal education since I was a law student has been the recognition of the importance of other disciplines to the understanding and shaping of law. Most law schools now have faculty who have advanced training in fields such as economics, philosophy, and psychology.
However, while faculty scholarship has become much more interdisciplinary, there has been little effort to integrate other disciplines into the legal curriculum. For most students, it is hit or miss depending on their instructors’ interests. Law schools should better ensure that all students receive some instruction in these other disciplines.
Interestingly, law school faculties have become interdisciplinary primarily by hiring within the law schools experts in these other areas. At most universities, faculty in the other disciplines have minimal involvement in the law schools. At the University of California, Irvine, there are already superb faculty working in areas such as criminology, law, and society, law and economics, law and psychology, law and sociology, and environmental law. It is crucial to integrate them into the law school from the outset and to have law faculty involved in these other disciplines.
Law schools also must do a better job of dealing with science and technology. The practice of law deals with these issues constantly, but law schools do not do nearly enough to prepare students to deal with legal matters involving science and technology.
As part of our interdisciplinary effort, the University of California, Irvine, School of Law will emphasize areas such as law and medicine, law and society, and law and humanities. We hope to hire key faculty in these areas and also establish dual degree programs. The presence of a significant number of students engaged in interdisciplinary work, by itself, will change the nature of law schools.
Finally, the law school of the 21st century must do a far better job of encouraging students to use their training to help the unrepresented and advance social justice. All too often, law students have heard about the need to serve the public interest on two occasions: in the dean’s opening welcome to first year students and the graduation speaker’s commencement address.
Using law to help people and society is neither liberal nor conservative. It is about the duty of every lawyer to use his or her training for the social good. Law schools must instill this throughout the curriculum and must look for ways, such as summer stipends, post-law school fellowships, and loan forgiveness programs, to encourage more law students to pursue careers in public interest law. All law students, whatever their field of practice, should graduate believing that they have the duty to do pro bono work and use their training to improve society.
If our new law school simply replicates existing outstanding law schools, then we will have failed. The country does not need another law school like the other great ones. But there is a need for a new approach to legal education and the law school University of California, Irvine, can provide a laboratory and a model. It is incredibly exciting to be the dean of this new endeavor and I enormously look forward to it.