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SUNY Buffalo Law Links - April 2016

Bold ideas for remaking legal education

Professor Susan Carle (American University), Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz (University of Arkansas), Dean Kevin R. Johnson (UC Davis), Professor James Wooten (UB)

The legal profession is changing. If there was any doubt about that reality, it was put to rest by Part 1 of this year’s Mitchell Lecture, which looked at how technology, outsourcing and deregulation are reshaping the landscape of legal practice.

So what does that mean for legal education?

That question was the focus for Part 2 of the Law School’s signature lecture series, held April 8. Three legal academics brought their sometimes-provocative ideas on the topic to an O’Brian Hall classroom filled with students, practitioners and faculty members.

Introduced by Professor James Wooten, chair of the Mitchell Lecture Committee, the speakers challenged their listeners to reimagine the law school experience.

Susan D. Carle, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, introduced the idea of “J.D. Advantage” jobs – those that don’t require bar passage or licensure, but still put a graduate’s legal training to use. The growing category includes such positions as corporate contracts administrator, government regulatory analyst, FBI agent, jobs with investment banks and consulting firms – even, she noted, law school faculty.

Many students, she said, go to law school with one of these jobs as their goal, never intending to enter traditional practice. “These are the jobs they really wanted, and they are jobs that respond to the conditions in the world as it is today,” Carle said.

She suggested that law schools provide more career services and training relevant to J.D. Advantage jobs, including courses in law and technology, and interdisciplinary clinics and seminars.

Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said his school has re-emphasized so-called “soft skills” that law firms say they need in new attorneys. These include such skills as workload management, team management, client relations, integrity, honesty and stress management.

“There are ways we should be bringing the profession into the law school more and more, as a means of improving everything,” Schwartz said. “Practitioners can bring in certain kinds of opportunities that we in academic law can’t bring to our students, and make it better.” That would include such things as mentoring programs, practical-skills courses such as one in how to secure and retain clients, and innovative simulation models.

Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law, added a further dimension by urging the audience to make diversity and student wellness a primary concern of legal education.

“We often talk about aspirations to having a diverse student body and having a diverse faculty,” he said. “We have a society that’s rapidly changing and is becoming increasingly diverse. But law schools are not much more diverse than they were in 1990. And in faculty diversity, we have more of a problem now than we did in the past.”

Johnson also raised concerns about the alcohol-fueled student culture at many law schools. “We need to spend some time helping students with healthy responses to stress,” he said. “We should think very carefully about how we work to make the law school environment a healthier, better one for law students – one where they can learn how to be healthy and productive legal professionals.”

A panel of SUNY Buffalo Law faculty members offered brief comments in response to the speaker presentations.

Professor Charles Patrick Ewing, director of the Advocacy Institute and a prolific writer and scholar, noted how much time faculty put into their research. “We devote so much of our energy to legal scholarship that it’s to the detriment of other things we could or should be doing as law schools,” Ewing said. “We’re loaded with scholars and people who love scholarship and writing and interacting with each other and attending conferences and being recognized for their scholarship, but that’s not the war we have to fight. The war we have to fight is for a more diverse student body, a more diverse faculty, a student body that’s better trained in lawyering skills and soft skills.”

Commenting on the J.D. Advantage job category, Professor Teresa A. Miller, who serves as UB’s vice provost for equity and inclusion, said the trend “really challenges us to think about what we are offering – the fact that we are talking about an advantage rather than a profession.” She also raised a demographic question: “My concern is that it becomes the place where more people from poor communities tend to get appointments, which would then devalue the compensation people get. Are they just employers who want attorneys but aren’t willing to pay for them?”

“At our core we are first and foremost a professional law school,” said Monica Piga Wallace ’94, a lecturer in SUNY Buffalo Law’s research and writing program. “The law is valuable to so many other disciplines, and the skills of critical thinking, legal analysis, being able to interpret evidence. It’s wonderful that students will take these skills and use them for other things, but I don’t think we should tailor our curriculum for the J.D. Advantage.”