University of Denver

Shifting Focus: Legal Education and Learning Outcomes

According to IAALS’ Foundations for Practice project, legal employers and current practitioners believe that, to be successful, new attorneys right out of law school must do much more than simply refine their legal skills—they must also possess the professional competencies and characteristics that will allow them to be thrive in today’s demanding market, outside of the traditional courtroom environment, such as grit, flexibility and adaptability, attentive listening, an ability to seek and be responsive to feedback, and an ability to recognize the needs, constraints and priorities of clients and stakeholders. Harrowing job placement numbers after the 2008 recession highlighted the gap in what new lawyers need and what they have to meet the needs of consumers, and the issue of whether law schools were preparing students to be lawyers for today’s society have rippled across the profession ever since. Today, the question remains: How can law schools adapt to meet the needs of the modern legal profession?

This question has been on the minds of educators and lawyers in recent years, and it has become increasingly clear that in order to adapt effectively, educators focus more on assessment. As Dean Gregory Bowman of West Virginia University College of Law recently wrote, “focus in legal education is shifting toward assessment—that is, away from what is taught, and toward what is actually learned.” The American Bar Association presumably recognized this when it revised its Standards for Approved Law School to require law schools to develop and implement learning outcomes.

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Educators, practitioners, and students are taking a keen interest in what implementation of these learning outcomes should look like.

In an article for the ABA Journal, Mary Juetten argues that by focusing on the outcomes of legal education and placing more emphasis on practical experience exercises in legal education, law schools can produce more effective, better trained lawyers that will secure employment more easily and provide effective representation to their clients. In his Forbes article, “What Are Law Schools Training Students For?”, Mark Cohen notes that legal performance is shifting from input—hours and origination—to output—outcomes and results that drive client value, and he urges law schools to do a better job preparing students for this reality.

In her piece, “Best Practices: What Law Schools Might Learn from one of Basketball’s Greatest Coaches, John Wooden”,  Sara Berman provides more specific advice for how to do these things by drawing parallels to the coaching principals of championship Basketball coach John Wooden. Berman argues that if law school faculty viewed their institutions and themselves as part of a team rather than separate departments, it would lead to a more complete and more successful education for the students. Berman suggests that students would be taught a curriculum that treats each piece of their education as part of a whole, rather than separate, distinct classes. Berman also argues that by changing the culture of law schools, law students will be more successful, both in their personal and professional lives. She suggests law schools do this in two ways: by banishing the competitive ideology that pervades every law school, and by stressing the importance of character traits such as attentiveness, integrity and trustworthiness. In fact, Berman points to the IAALS Foundations for Practice report on the Whole Lawyer and Character Quotient, which found that character traits such as conscientiousness, integrity, and common sense were valued higher than legal skills by legal employers and practicing lawyers, as those traits are crucial to providing excellent legal services to clients. 

IAALS sought to close the gap between the abilities new lawyers have and the abilities new lawyers need in its Foundations for Practice project when it asked over 24,000 lawyers the simple question, “what does it take to be a successful lawyer right out of law school?” In the second phase of the Foundations project, IAALS is using the survey results to develop a set of learning outcomes, assessments, instructional designs, and hiring tools that educators and legal employers will be able to use to instill and identify the desired characteristics, competencies, and skills in future lawyers. By instituting these kinds of changes, law schools can produce lawyers who will better serve their clients and better serve themselves and their law firms.

The shift in focus among educators and other legal professionals provides an opportunity to close the gaps between what lawyers have and what they need and to produce attorneys and legal professionals that can effectively gain employment and deliver legal services in a way that meets the needs of their clients. The time to make change is now, and law schools that adapt to this reality will do more than just improve how they educate students. They will also distinguish themselves in a field that often prefers tradition to change.