Law school has been top of mind for me lately, even though it has been a quarter century since I earned my J.D. There are three reasons this is the case. First, I attended a milestone law school reunion this summer. Second, my oldest daughter starts law school this month. Third, the company I work for, Kaplan, plays a big role in preparing students for law school and providing them with a legal education. Kaplan not only prepares students for the LSAT and the bar exam, but it also owns and operates two law schools: Concord Law School, an online law school, and Kaplan Law School in London.
At my law school reunion, one recurrent theme arose in nearly every conversation: Did our law school education adequately prepare us for the practice of law? Looking back, my classmates and I seemed to universally agree that many skills critical to our work as lawyers were never addressed in our classrooms. We studied contracts, but not how to draft or negotiate them; corporate law, but not how to acquire a company or prepare a securities filing. We analyzed umpteen case decisions, but had little clue as to the litigation steps needed for a claim to wend its way there—or better yet, how to settle one. Law school prepared us exceptionally in the rules of law, simply not for its everyday practice.
According to Ward Farnsworth, the dean of the University of Texas School of Law, in his book The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking About the Law, “the way law is usually taught” often seems to be “upside down.” This is because law schools generally don’t teach the “tools for thinking about legal problems.” Farnsworth’s insightful book attempts to do just that—not just for law students and scholars, but for legal practitioners too.
I do not advocate an overhaul of the legal education system; the study of legal rules provides a necessary foundation. But I have long been in favor of supplementing the curriculum with practical learning as well. I agree with Dean Farnsworth that it is “more urgent than ever for schools to think hard about how they prepare their graduates to be not only sophisticated, but also useful to potential clients from the day they leave.”
Practical skills demanded in today’s legal profession include:
- Problem Solving. Great lawyers need to be adept not only at identifying potential problems, but also at coming up with creative solutions.
- Project Management. Lawyers should be trained to plan and execute strategies, organize their work, build strong teams, manage resources, measure results and communicate well with clients.
- Packaging Information. Successful lawyers have learned how to synthesize information and present it clearly and tailored to their audience.
- Financial Literacy. Lawyers should not be clueless about running a business, balancing a ledger, working with statistics, calculating profit margins or explaining the rationale behind legal fees.
Other much-needed practical skills include negotiation, client acquisition and retention, and leadership. Legal educators should offer such practical learning to best equip law graduates and practitioners for the modern legal profession.