Katherine Bishop 2014-07-03 00:29:51
Law school has always had a mysterious and glamorous appeal. The Socratic Method has been at the core of classroom curriculum for generations. Scott Turow of “One L” notoriety indicated in his narrative both the euphoria and depths of doubt in the first year. In the opening to the classic work he states: “I am a law student in my first year at the law, and there are many moments when I am simply a mess.” In the post-recession legal sphere Turow’s description may actually pertain to numbers of third year students who find themselves anxious about employment, student loans and adaptability to legal practice with a putative academic/workplace skills gap. Yet, the legal community is a vibrant ecosystem that is committed to changing the existing dynamic. The process begins at the schools where new innovations, firms and methodologies are fundamentally transforming the landscape. From the latest collection of data released by the American Bar Association law school enrollment continued its precipitous decline from all-time highs of 2010 – standing at 52,488 first year attendees to 39,675 in 2013, a 25 percent decline in three years. The data indicates a considerable slowdown in the number of lawyers who will ultimately enter the labor pool. However, even with the decline, the job market for newly minted legal scholars is highly challenging. With debt controlling the seesaw over income, the coming decade will place real pressures on new law school graduates to not only find positions, but manage the transition into the increasingly competitive intellectual global economy. A recent piece in The New York Times explicated some of the new offerings that aggressive law schools are pursuing to “cut the Gordian Knot.” These unique programs include: direct placement into the public defender’s office for third year students at University of California Hastings College of Law; a new template in Arizona and New York allowing third year students to sit for the bar; and the University of Arizona’s new undergraduate degree in law – the nation’s first such program. “The practice of law was forced to change after the recession,” said Marty Harper, president and CEO of the ASU Alumni Law Group. “It went from a seller’s to a buyer’s market. Associates have become hard to hire because clients can't pay for them. Before, senior staff would teach curriculum to those that weren't “practice ready” while on a case. The current model does not allow lead time for that.” Garnering considerable attention is a program launched in coordination with Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, the ASU Alumni Law Group. The law group is a nonprofit firm, funded entirely without taxpayer dollars and is challenging convention as it seeks to represent the next stage in the evolution of legal education. Its charge is to hire recent ASU law graduates – potentially 30 in all – who will work in tandem with credentialed practicing attorneys on real cases for underserved low-income client populations. Specifically, the group handles workloads in the competencies of affordable consumer law, criminal law, foreclosure and home services, employment, landlord/tenant disputes, and veterans’ issues. Dean of the Arizona State Law School, Douglas J. Sylvester indicates that the new firm is “financially stable and making its own way forward,” and sees the new entity as eventually becoming “a nationally replicated model” in the transformation of the legal space. Schools making changes or contemplating them are doing so as they see inevitable revenue declines from falling tuition enrollment. Interestingly, the evolution underway may ultimately solve tangential problems, as many of these incubator pilot programs are designed to ameliorate poor or no legal representation for communities with difficulty obtaining or paying for legal services. In fact the New York State early bar program provides testing for third year students, but only with a quid pro quo of returning for a last semester of pro bono work. Law students have experienced a profound change, as have businesses and institutions in the methods, approach, complexity and utility of legal expertise. ASU Law School Dean Sylvester wanted the new ASU Alumni Law Group to follow the Mayo Medical School approach: “A teaching hospital for law school graduates.” While some changes are anticipated, others will be unforeseen and impress greater temerity on the wisdom of current conventions. But as the intellectual economy expands, tomorrow’s lawyers will have to be adroit and ready to serve clients diverse in their income, geography, education and complexities. Law schools are the focus and voice of this change to the legal sphere; an impetus designed to strengthen the profession, define its purposes and impacts, smooth the imbalances, and have a whole new generation reading Turow, clamoring to be a One L.
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