On September 6th, a week after President Obama’s comment that “… law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years,” we held a panel discussion at Brooklyn Law School to explore both the meaning and implications of this idea. President Obama’s comment was made during a tour of the Northeast. His goal was to highlight the need to make higher education more affordable for more Americans.
I moderated the panel that included James Silkenat, President of the American Bar Association; Presiding Justice Randall Eng of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department; Anthony Crowell, Dean and President of New York Law School; and Michael Cardozo, Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, among others.
At the heart of our discussion were the mission and the business of law schools. The mission of law schools is to educate and equip new lawyers to be productive contributors to society, business and the legal profession for a lifetime. As a business, law schools must deliver value to consumers — in our case, students — by providing an education they can leverage to create lifelong opportunities, depending on what they want to achieve.
Given our mission and the nature of our business, there is a growing need to strike a balance between preparing future lawyers to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and practitioners in a complex world. Plus, we must provide a legal education that delivers immediate value, given the considerable amount of time and money our students invest in it.
Striking the right balance is further complicated because the roles of lawyers are so varied. Lawyers are guardians of our democracy and enablers of economic opportunity; and they are professionals with concrete skills that governments, businesses and individuals need to navigate our criminal and civil legal systems.
Assuring that law students are prepared for all these roles is made more challenging by the pace of change in today’s world. Advances in information technology, life sciences, energy and healthcare are occurring at a pace much faster than the law can keep up with, obsoleting existing laws long before our system can amend them or make new ones.
For example, our society is currently grappling with new legal concerns about privacy and data security with governments and businesses collecting massive amounts of data on individuals. Advances in fertility science muddy what used to be simple questions about matters such as survivorship. And borderless economic markets have created new risks that must be managed and new regulations that must be complied with. It was just reported that JP Morgan “plans to spend an additional $4 billion and commit 5,000 extra employees this year to clean up its risk and compliance problems.”
Situations like these and others demand that today’s lawyers be grounded in legal theory that they can immediately apply to “never before seen” issues that must be resolved now, in the real world.
The reality of this new environment was behind James Silkenat’s comment during the panel discussion, “The U.S., I think, is very seriously under lawyered because of the huge unmet legal needs that exist in the United States.”
Silkenat added that the American legal education is by far the best in the world, but it needs to “evolve with the rapid changes that are taking place.”
Presiding Justice Eng noted that, “It’s necessary to ensure that we have the highest caliber of lawyers admitted to practice … those who have shown the ability to withstand the academic rigors and those who have demonstrated the character and fitness necessary to be attorneys in this very complex and in this very ethically aware environment.”
Dean Crowell noted that “student understand the interdependent and interrelated aspects of law as early as possible.”
Michael Cardozo succinctly captured the duality of our challenge as legal educators when he said, “We must find a more efficient and less costly way to give new lawyers meaningful training and at the same time, we have to ask ourselves how do we reduce the overall cost of legal education.”
This need to change the business of legal education is testing the mettle of our nation’s law schools. And with respect for the President and his comment, it goes far beyond and is much more nuanced than how long it takes to get through law school.
Of course, there are some legal educators who say that changing the business of law school cannot happen overnight, and they are right. But certainly we must accelerate innovation and reforms if we are to meet our educational mission of preparing creative and strategic thinkers and producing graduates who are competent and productive professionals on day one.
When President Obama was elected in 2008, he said, “Change has come to America.”
Today, change must come to the business of legal education, and legal educators must change with the times. Like any business, clinging to old-fashioned ways is simply not an option.
Nicholas W. Allard became Dean of Brooklyn Law School in 2012 after three decades in legal practice, public policy and politics. He is globally recognized for expertise and innovation on legislative, regulatory matters, and higher education.
In 2013, Brooklyn Law School became the first New York law school to adopt a two-year JD degree enabling select students to complete three-year courses in 24 months.
Dean Allard was partner, chair of the Public Policy Department, and co-chair of the Government Advocacy Practice at Patton Boggs LLP. He is a graduate of Princeton University, Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and Yale University Law School.
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