ETL Fellow Gillian Hadfield Proposes Three Steps to Improve Legal Education

In a recent article, Gillian Hadfield, Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Southern California, commented on how the United States legal education system has in some ways become stale. She suggests that law schools aren't preparing graduates to accurately address the legal and regulatory needs found in our rapidly changing society. She says:

“The result is an insulated and out-of-touch conveyor-belt profession that has become too complex, too expensive, and too disconnected from the realities people and businesses face. Law is increasingly not getting the job done, let alone addressing the long-term crisis in access to justice and modern challenges such as automation, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, climate change, and safety and fairness in global supply chains.”

The Harvard model of legal education, or the conventional model, focuses on “thinking like a lawyer” and leaves practical training to employers. Hadfield contends that this model was ideal when the United States had an industrial nation-state economy; but since then, the American Bar Association has an “effective monopoly” on the profession and law school accreditation, which prevents law schools from adapting to change.

Hadfield proposes a three-step overhaul to improve legal education and better prepare new attorneys for the real world.

  • Step one: dismantle the ABA’s top-down approach to regulating the legal profession and allow universities and colleges to decide how best to determine who is qualified to practice law. Hadfield argues opening the field to more diverse practitioners would invite new ideas to solve today’s legal problems.
  • Step two: emphasize practical knowledge in the way the medical field does. This she suggests would test law students’ knowledge early and then qualify candidates based on how they respond to real-world legal problems posed by real clients.
  • Step three: recognize that legal training is not one-size-fits-all, meaning not all forms of legal assistance require the same level or kind of legal training. 

“The reform of legal education could bring benefits in the form of economic growth, access to justice, and ongoing legal innovation to meet the challenges of the 21st century, as well as reducing the burden of debt on the next generation of legal professionals,” Hadfield says. “And this may even turn around the declining number of students choosing to go into law.”

Gillian Hadfield is also an ETL Fellow and a former ETL Advisory Committee member.

Heather Buchanan is a second-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.