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Common Law: The Recession Is Forcing Law Schools to Be More Practical

Forget lectures and Socratic-style seminars. Law schools are shifting toward job-friendly skills like project management.

Can making law school more practical help grads facing a tough legal job market? That's the thinking behind recent changes in course offerings and faculty at the nation's law schools. Instead of continuing the tradition of theory-based courses in which students learn how to analyze a case, research the law, and make an argument, schools are shifting to teaching job-friendly skills like networking, managing clients, and how to file a case in court.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this shift is entirely driven by the recession. In 2010, only 25 percent of law school grads were hired by big law firms, down from 33 percent in 2009. Firms don't want to hire new grads because clients are "limiting the number of hours" a firm can charge and making policies "not to pay for first-year associates." That's because law schools traditionally equip students with theoretical knowledge, leaving them to pick up the practical aspects of being a lawyer on the job. However, clients no longer feel they should have to pay while someone gets up to speed, meaning that law firms are pushing back on law schools to send them grads that are ready to hit the ground running.

Indiana University's law school has decided to start teaching students project management and emotional intelligence. Washington and Lee University "completely rebuilt its third-year curriculum in 2009, swapping out lectures and Socratic-style seminars for case-based simulations run by practicing lawyers." Even Stanford, one of the preeminent law schools in the country, is considering adding a medical school-style residency program requiring students to complete "several 40-hour plus weeks of actual case work."

Of course, exacerbating these problems is that the job market for lawyers is so bad right now, it really doesn't matter how practical law schools make classes—there simply isn't enough work out there. Last year almost 54,000 people passed the bar exam, but there were only around 26,000 legal job openings nationwide. And instead of hiring first-year associates, firms have found it's cheaper to employ previously out of work attorneys to do document review on a contract basis.

Things have gotten bad enough that enterprising students might want to question whether going to law school even makes sense anymore, at least for the time being. For instance, though New York Law School has vowed to continue reforming by hiring professors "directly from the ranks of working lawyers, to teach skills in negotiation, counseling and fact investigation," NYLS is still ranked 135th academically. Most major firms heavily consider the prestige of a job applicant's school, so if a person is going to a second- or third-tier school, they probably have little chance of finding employment. That means graduates from NYLS, which charges $47,800 per year, are likely to have plenty of debt but no job in the legal profession. Perhaps now is the time for a career in engineering.

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