Legal education is in a period of profound and much-needed change. That was the unanimous assessment of a group of experts at FutureEd 2, a conference at Harvard Law School in October that attracted more than 150 legal educators, practitioners and businesspeople from around the world.
Yet how, exactly, law schools will be different in five or 20 years is less clear, although there are many suggested paths, ranging from a greater emphasis on global education to more practical training for budding lawyers. And, at the same time, there are strong voices urging law schools to maintain what’s best about traditional legal education even as they undergo reform.
“The overarching theme was that this was really an important moment, and there’s a growing realization that legal education really needs to change in important ways,” said Professor David Wilkins ’80, faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, which hosted the conference, the second in a three-part series co-sponsored with New York Law School to explore the current state of legal education and help shape its future.
The conference provided the opportunity to gather examples of reforms and innovations, as well as solicit recommendations for reform.
Proposals for improving legal education ranged from more distance learning to more experiential learning in various forms. Of the 30 proposals, five or six will be highlighted at the final conference next April at New York Law School. But, as HLS Dean Martha Minow urged, during an address to the group, law schools should not abandon what they do so well: “Sharp analysis, teaching people to think hard through a problem by taking it apart, questioning assumptions, tracing consequences of potential avenues of response—these are the hallmarks of legal education.”
Driving much of the conference agenda was the rapid globalization of economic and government relationships, as panelists from law schools around the world discussed how to best educate lawyers for an increasingly interconnected and interdependent international environment. Birte Gall, director of the International Exchange Program at Bucerius Law School in Germany, noted that her school requires students to spend a semester studying abroad, in order to understand the law of a different jurisdiction, to develop personally by living in a foreign culture and to begin building a network of international colleagues.
Other topics included the problem of retaining women in the legal profession, especially women of color; “cradle to grave” professional development; and Harvard Law School’s new model for a public service venture fund to support the launch of public service careers to encourage students to begin thinking about their legal careers more entrepreneurially.
Since American legal education is still widely regarded abroad as the best, other nations are looking to the U.S. to lead the way in legal education reform. Many foreign law schools are seeking accreditation from the American Bar Association, a proposal that the ABA is considering. ABA President Stephen Zack—one of four ABA officers attending FutureEd 2—asked panelists to explain why ABA accreditation was so important to them.
“The U.S. as a country, and its legal system, are profoundly influential around the world,” responded C. Raj Kumar LL.M. ’00, who spearheaded the effort to establish India’s first global law school, the Jindal Global Law School, and serves as its dean. “There is also great interest among lawyers around the world to measure up to the kind of ‘best standards’ that the legal profession has been fostering in the U.S.” Kumar added that it is important for the ABA to send the “right signal” to lawyers and governments around the world that the U.S. is not engaging in protectionism with regard to legal services.
Wilkins said the conference exceeded his expectations on many fronts, including the high level of engagement among the participants: “I can’t claim to know what it was like when Christopher Columbus Langdell was operating, but there is a willingness now to re-examine what’s happening in law schools in relation to tremendous changes in legal practice around the world, in a way I’ve never seen before.”
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