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Legal Education: Refining and Extending the Vision

Last week’s post on the future of legal education – “One Vision of the Future” – in many ways didn’t go far enough. So here is a refinement and extension. I like “things,” and here I am designing a “thing.” Version 2.0, if you will.

As with Version 1.0, the point of this exercise is not only to engage in some science fiction regarding what we do. It’s to see if the science fiction leads to recognizing some things that we might do today that would help our students and the profession.

The original vision framed a small, integrated 3-year law school program that made some substantial changes to the way things are done today. The JD degree would be a two-year program, but sitting for the bar would require a JD plus substantial “experiential” training, perhaps in a law school, perhaps elsewhere. The two-year program would be restructured. The first year would focus in part on “content,” though in interdisciplinary blends rather than in Langdellian silos, and in part on tracks focused on personal/professional development, on technology and design, and on business, organizations, and management.

Layered throughout would be heavy emphasis on communications skills, particularly writing. The second year would consist of a series of elective courses organized thematically — international issues, criminal justice issues, innovation and entrepreneurship issues, law and power issues, urban policy issues, etc. etc. Each “course” would be an experiential/classroom blend, with extensive use of simulations and role-playing and live-party interactions and a continuation of the focus on writing and communications skills. A post-JD year — required for bar admission — would feature clinics, labs, incubators, internships, practicums, and so on. The post-JD year would also include modules or tracks devoted to scholarship and training future faculty, leading to whatever extra degree or certification were required for admission to the professoriate.  For them, a post-JD year might run into more than one year.

I’d hire only faculty who would both teach and write “across the curriculum.” There would be no faculty devoted only to legal writing or to clinics or to so-called “doctrinal” or “classroom” instruction. All scholars would teach; all teachers would write. (Not specified in the original post: Practitioners, judges, and others, as part-time adjunct faculty, would co-teach in partnership with full-time faculty.)

It’s a high-cost “boutique” model that would have to be subsidized to a substantial degree by an endowment.*

Here is version 2.0: We could unbundle legal education. Why do all of the functions of a law school, even a law school of the future, need to be provided in a single institution, by a single group of faculty?

What follows is much less prescriptive than version 1.0.  Version 1.0 was (is) a first draft of what I would like legal education to be.  Version 2.0 is closer to what I think is, in fact, coming.

The JD degree is essentially a certification by some body — today, the integrated law school — that students have completed a certain number of credits in a certain knowledge domain. The content of some of those credits are mandatory (legal ethics or professional responsibility, for example); the content of most of them are optional. Let’s imagine for now that the certification function remains applicable and relevant, but that students could obtain certification from the appropriate institution by virtue of having completed the course credits — or other activities — as they wish, in whatever time frame that might be specified (two years sequentially. Or within a three- to five-year window, perhaps?), and in whatever venue or venues they preferred. That institution might be a university. It might be a stand-alone school. It might be a state bar association or the Supreme Court of a state. It might be located online, or outside the US, or both. It might be something else entirely.

Some or all of the propositional knowledge could be obtained online. MOOCs, better organized than they are today, might serve, but MOOCs are only one way of organizing online information delivery. Writing and communications education could be obtained in writing academies (for example) that would serve not only future lawyers but also future engineers and managers and schoolteachers, offering both general writing instruction and specialized versions for different professional disciplines.

Leadership and personal and professional development training could be supplied by extensions of existing dedicated programs that provide exactly that, or by business schools, or by colleges, or by some combination of these things or by new ones. Experiential training, the sort of thing provided by today’s clinics, could be supplied by apprenticeships. “Elective” modules in different disciplinary domains could be provided by specialized providers within each domain; overlaps among domains and creation of new domains would be expected.

Designing pathways through this stuff so that the resulting certification looked more like an educational program and less like shopping for legal education at Costco, with lots of disconnected chunks of things dumped in your educational cart, would take some time and care. A “law school” dean, for example, would be a curator or brand manager much more than an educational leader, strategist, and visionary.  A given “law school faculty” could be far less than a group of actual classroom teachers and a “company of scholars.”  The very word “faculty” implies a group of people bound to an institution.  But the institution would be little more than a brand and a certifying agency.  Individual teachers/scholars would certainly exist, but they would be free agents supplying individualized teaching and learning services, certified as “acceptable” (or better) by some other authority. (Readers familiar with the history of higher education will note the “back to the future” character of this.  It reads very much like Bologna in the 12th century – and something like Clark Kerr’s semi-serious description of a university as “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”)

Providers and consumers of educational resources would create and share pools of knowledge and expertise across geography and time (teachers in one venue, perhaps live and perhaps recorded, could work with students in different venues and perhaps at different times) rather than meeting in a single place at single time under the umbrella of a single school.  The idea of cohorts of students moving in sync through an institution, as a “student body,” would fade away.

Undoubtedly there would be a lot of trial and error. Certification authorities might end up competing with each other. Bar admission, if it remained a necessity, could specify certification at some level. Clients and consumers might demand higher levels of certification, whether for prestige purposes or quality purposes or both.  Prestige hierarchies would not go away, but they and their constituents might move around a bit.

My guess right now this: If my Version 1.0 of the future of legal education is a high-priced fantasy — my own upscale, romanticized version of how I would spend a lot of money — then my Version 2.0 is closer to the low-priced version of what I think will actually emerge, over some unknown period of years.**

* I didn’t include citations the first time around, but Version 1.0 owed debts to Sam Estreicher and Dan Rodriguez, to Yale’s School of Management and to its undergraduate Directed Studies program, and to Jack Schlegel.

** After I wrote this but before I posted it, I came across this post about a recent talk on the future of universities.

[This is part of a five-post series. In all, the posts are: