Building the Next Gen J.D.

The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law (COL) is in a position to rethink legal education. To do so, COL is hosting an event Jan. 27-29, 2017, with a lofty goal: to design the next generation J.D. program. Built in the tradition of a “hackathon,” this event will have participants working in teams over a 36-hour period to transform legal education by designing a program that provides graduates the necessary knowledge, skills, and value to best serve future clients and the public good.

What does an ideal J.D. program look like?

For more than 25 years, commentators have critiqued legal education and recommended changes to curricular design and pedagogical approach. In 1992, the American Bar Association (ABA) released a report on legal education and professional development—referred to as the “McCrate Report” that provided a series of recommendations for law schools. Fifteen years later, the Carnegie Foundation issued a report—referred to as the Carnegie Report—on preparing lawyers for the profession.

In 2014, faced with a structural crisis in both legal education and the legal services market exacerbated by the Great Recession, the ABA created a “Task Force on the Future of Legal Education” charged “to examine the current problems and conditions in American legal education and present recommendations that are workable.”

The critiques and recommendations echoed a common theme: the need to balance what had been the bedrock of legal education for generations—fundamental legal knowledge and analytical skills—with the practical skills and ethical values necessary to apply theory to practice in law. Seeking this balance has been a source of controversy for fifty years. In 1967, Dean Phil Neal, from the University of Chicago Law School, articulated the rift: “My proposition is that the aim of the law school, at any rate, of this law school, is not to train lawyers, but to educate men for becoming lawyers. There is vast difference.”

Are we sending out unprepared law graduates?

Because of this unresolved controversy, law schools have been slow to adopt wholesale changes to what they teach. To be sure, students are provided with more opportunities to gain practical skills through clinical and externships programs as well as simulation-based classroom experiences. But recent studies have not found that law schools are preparing graduates for the practice of law.

Nearly 90 percent of new law school graduates surveyed say law schools must “undergo significant changes to better prepare future attorneys for the changing employment landscape and legal profession.” Likewise, 95 percent of hiring partners and associates believe recently graduated law students lack key practical skills at the time of hiring. These findings are consistent with the American Bar Foundation’s “After the J.D.” study, in which 50 percent of lawyers after seven years of practice reported that law school did not adequately prepare them for practice.

How to move beyond the Socratic method

In addition, despite the advancements in education research, law schools have been slow to incorporate innovative teaching methods proven to improve learning. Many law professors continue to rely on the Socratic method, using appellate cases to teach fundamental concepts. Until recently, law schools were also not required to use formative assessments to inform their teaching and improve their programs.

This is not to suggest that there hasn’t been an effort to focus on teaching in law schools. The ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar has placed an increased emphasis on outcome measurements and experiential courses. The Institute for Law Teaching and Learning continues to help law schools meet their educational missions. And LegalEd was created as a place where law professors could learn about innovative teaching techniques from their colleagues. But these efforts have not resulted in systemic changes to pedagogy or curricular design in law schools.

Moreover, these critiques don’t begin to address the deficit for preparing graduates to enter a changing legal services market. Some of what lawyers did just ten years ago has been replaced by technology. Non-lawyer legal service providers, such as Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom, have found success allowing legal service consumers to create their own legal documents and forms. Computers, with the aid of non-lawyers, can perform functions—such as discovery—more efficiently and at a lower cost than lawyers. Yet, few law schools incorporate the “technology of law” into their curriculum or prepare graduates to adapt, innovate, and excel in this changing market.

The Colleges of Law is excited by what creative and innovative ideas may emerge from the “Hack-the-J.D.” event it’s hosting. And like TED Talks, we have no doubt there will be plenty of “ideas worth spreading.”