Too Soon to Tell

At Washington & Lee, as at most schools right now, we would prefer that our students were more successful in obtaining employment. But the 2012 employment figures, unfortunate as they are, say nothing about our our curricular reform. It is simply too early, . . . much too early.

The 2012 numbers refer to the first full class to pass through the reformed third year curriculum. Ours is a slow-to-change profession. Employers as a group do not change their settled practices on a dime. Nothing in the employment numbers that we see for the next 3 to five years should be seen as reflecting on the reception given to the curriculum reform. No curricular reform I know of, including Langdell’s, changed settled practices of others overnight.

We are confident in the reform and the value it adds to our students. The reform has become reasonably well-known within legal education, but we have considerable work yet to do to make it known and understood to the
employing-branch of the legal profession.

The education a W&L student receives today is more rigorous than was the education received by their predecessors. The first year, with added requirements of administrative law and transnational law and professional responsibility, continues to be taught with the techniques and materials that have made the first year a legal education success story. The second year, too, is largely unchanged in its methodology. But in the reformed third year, students are challenged in ways they are not challenged in the traditional third year. Students must study and adopt the analytical practices of sophisticated lawyers. They must write more than their predecessors in the traditional third year. They must problem solve more. They must work as teams. They must progress in the mastery of the complex mental processes of sophisticated lawyers. The data gathered by the Law Student Survey of Student Engagement shows that our third year students are more actively involved in their education than both their W&L predecessors and current students at our peer schools.

And, too, students in the new curriculum continue to learn law, but they learn it as lawyers do rather than as students do. In a course, for example, such as The Lawyer for Failing Businesses, the students learn bankruptcy and creditor law. But they learn it to solve a client’s problem or engage in other representation activities: they learn the law to use it instead of to pass a 3 hour exam on it. They begin to form the mental pathways of lawyers, who analyze and act on client needs by weighing a wide variety of factors beyond the law itself. Business interests, reputational interests, client risk-comfort levels and a wide variety of other factors weigh into that advice and work of sophisticated lawyers. Students in the reformed curriculum begin to develop those critical sensibilities.

I fully agree that it is incumbent on employers to “buy” what they have implored law schools to do to prepare students for the rigors of sophisticated practice. Time will tell. Employers’ behavior is long- entrenched and employers are being especially cautious due to the financial crisis, but eventually we remain confident that these reforms, adopted in the midst of the most turbulent market in legal services in modern history, will bear fruit for all constituencies. The employment success of the very first class through a curriculum reform comes far too early to launch speculation about its connections with the reform.

  • kindasorta

    One can practice law on a client’s behalf once one is licensed by a state bar association. So why is it that graduates cannot feel good about opening up their own shop to serve a community (or, for that matter, taking a bar exam without a test-specific prep course) after three years of law school?

    What employers think is that the best students are the ones who jumped through the highest and most hoops, starting with the law school to which they were admitted and ending with their class position. They also think that every law graduate will need to be trained to be of any use to a client. Since 45% of your graduates aren’t finding employers to perform this training, why not build a law school around the ones who won’t get employer-mentors instead of trying to win an arms race with your competitor schools among those employer-mentors for your graduates?

    • Barry_D

      “So why is it that graduates cannot feel good about opening up their own
      shop to serve a community (or, for that matter, taking a bar exam
      without a test-specific prep course) after three years of law school?”

      This has been covered quite extensively on various blogs. The short answer is that even with quite good and practical training, a new graduate is rarely able to fully practice law on their own (this holds for *all* professions). And that’s not counting the problems with not knowing the business aspects, having no network, no client references and work history.

  • Pine Valley

    The explanations that you pose are certainly possible. But, at the end of the day, the most fundamental problem is that there are more graduates than jobs. If the number of graduates are reduced it really doesn’t matter if the training is old school Socratic, clinical or basket weaving, there will be jobs once the student passes the bar. otherwise, unemployment will continue.

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