Legal education is experiencing its biggest shake-up in decades. Applications to law school are down about 45 percent since 2009, and millennials — more than any previous generation — are rejecting law school. This “crisis” has caused much soul searching in the legal academy, but the problems are clear: We are using the same old approach to teaching students that schools used over 100 years ago, tuition is higher than ever, and traditional legal jobs are scarce. So how can we fix this?
Imagine law schools with millennial swagger, the confidence that bucks tradition and ventures out in order to move forward.
Law schools may be great at teaching critical thinking, but they stink at encouraging creative thinking and guiding students on non-traditional paths. Many students pursue a JD expecting flexible options with their degree, but they find that law school is largely inflexible, often killing creative spirits upon arrival. (I am still trying to resurrect mine — I graduated in 2000 and have been teaching for almost 10 years.) I am not against law schools, but they need to evolve. Schools are disconnected from and less popular with millennials because they are driven by innovation and entrepreneurialism. How could they not be, having been influenced by the likes of Mark Zuckerburg and Jay-Z and the creation of iEverything? Even many of this generation’s spiritual leaders are entrepreneurial, and schools must be equally innovative to keep this generation engaged.
Law schools could learn a lot from millennials. And frankly, they are already schooling us. They forced us to take notice by not applying for admission, harshly critiquing us on blogs and creating their own law school rankings. Some dissatisfied graduates have even sued their law schools for fraud in reporting job statistics (oh, the irony). They are some badasses. And they’re not about to change. Even when traditional law jobs return, we will still have a fundamental problem educating this generation (and their kids) as they become increasingly skeptical of the value of higher education.
Imagine if law schools had some of that millennial swagger, the confidence that bucks tradition and ventures out in order to move forward. How do we get there? By getting out into the real world.
Schools today lack the innovative spark because the professors who run law schools mostly talk to each other. Some faculties even pressure professors to live around and socialize with each other. Despite this isolating atmosphere, I know a few professors who have ventured out to work in the “real world” in various capacities. The benefits were immediate and substantial — both for them as teachers and in helping their students forge career paths.
One colleague recently took a sabbatical to work at a law firm for a year. Drawing on this experience, she created a class focused on the “business” of lawyering — real-world issues that practicing lawyers face, from finances and becoming a “free agent” to emotional health. The class has been a huge hit, receiving rave reviews from students and attorneys alike. Designing this new class was a massive undertaking because it was far from a traditional course; she came up with the concept, the content and all of the material. A new book based on the class will soon be available for professors across the country who want to teach similar classes.
The key to innovation in law schools is having policy makers immersed in the real world for substantial periods of time; it’s not enough to dabble here and there as experts witnesses and consultants. Currently such opportunities are rare, and they are controversial at many institutions. Scholarship is the tenured and tenure-track professor’s lifeblood, and it is a major source of an institution’s reputational capital within the academy. The relentless pressure to produce “scholarly” writings makes it impossible for most professors to devote time to anything other than traditional research leaves.
The solution is to send the policy makers — the tenured professors — into the real world.
Today, when the question of law school reform gets raised, the discussion invariably turns to tenure and whether it should be eliminated. But tenure is so institutionalized that professors won’t give it up without a hell of a fight. Frankly, I don’t see it going away anytime soon. Nor will the requirement that law professors produce legal scholarship to obtain tenure. Which is why most adjunct professors (the ones who practice law and teach classes on the side) will never get tenure and become policy makers — they tend not to produce scholarship, and many don’t want to teach full time anyway.
The solution is to send the policy makers — the tenured professors — into the real world. Doing so would breathe new life into our curricula and enhance our scholarship (even if fewer research leaves translates to less scholarship, what we do produce would be far more relevant and impactful). “Experience sabbaticals” funded by our schools (if necessary) to work in corporations, small businesses, law firms, nonprofits or government agencies should be normalized to give us fresh perspectives on the world that our students will face.
Almost every year, at least one of my colleagues takes a traditional research sabbatical. A worthy experience, but the truth is that we don’t need it nearly as much as we need immersion in real-world working environments. Imagine if every year at least one professor on every law school faculty in the country took an experience sabbatical. Guaranteed it would transform legal education as we know it.
This is just one step, but I see it as a crucial one. Law faculties need a much higher level of engagement outside of our limited circles. Any major culture shift in law schools won’t happen without external pressure. The heat that we are facing from millennials just might get the job done.
Montré D. Carodine is a law professor and former associate dean at the University of Alabama School of Law.
Why you should care
Because, like it or not, someday you’re going to need a lawyer.