By Harold Krent
IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law
To many, images of a terrifying professor Kingsfield in a large lecture hall, interrogating students on the niceties of case law, typify the law school experience. Indeed, most large doctrinal courses, such as contracts, torts and property, have been taught in roughly that manner for almost 100 years. The interior design of the classrooms has altered, but little else.
Curricula for upper-level courses long have departed from the Kingsfield model. Law schools have substituted a variety of skills courses in the place of doctrinal classes. Legal writing courses, advocacy courses, clinical offerings and externships have increased in number and sophistication.
The American Bar Association recently released a study of law school curricula trends from 2002 to 2010. The study noted greater stress on legal writing, more clinical options and continued experimentation in delivery of courses, from simulations to distance learning. The number of certificate programs expanded and more schools offered joint degree programs. Required pro bono service increased.
By the time that the ABA next updates its study, the pace of change likely will quicken, particularly in light of constricted employment opportunities. Schools will continue to shift curricula to provide students with greater opportunities in the job market. I doubt that much will change with the first-year curriculum. Nor should it. The Socratic approach has proven an invaluable way to promote a mastery of the legal method. But the type and mix of skills instruction will change. I cannot claim to have a crystal ball, but will sketch the ways I anticipate that law schools will transform the traditional curriculum.
First, schools will continue the trend identified in the ABA study and create more experiential programs both to permit students to acquire practical skills and, perhaps more importantly, to introduce them to the networking process. Expanding clinical programs and externships falls into this category. The sooner we can help students experience a work environment, the more quickly they will understand different facets of law practice and prepare their course of studies accordingly. At IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, for example, we pledge to find all interested students an externship after their first year.
Second, schools across the country, including ours, are experimenting by changing the type of skills that they impart. Law firms have told us that our students are wonderful in the "Kingsfield environment" in terms of their thinking and that their writing skills have improved markedly, as was the goal of the increased stress on legal writing addressed in the ABA report. But too many students do not understand what it takes to work with others on group projects — to overcome others' shortcomings and ensure effective communication within the team. In addition, many lawyers must learn to work with those from other disciplines, whether accountants or psychologists. Working groups in the current global environment often span continents as well as disciplines. Law schools are supplementing traditional skills instruction with a greater focus on solving complex problems through group projects.
Third, schools also will offer more specialized courses tied to new opportunities in the marketplace. For instance, at IIT Chicago-Kent we launched a compliance initiative this past year. With increased focus on regulation in the financial services and health-care industries, we anticipate greater demand for students equipped with the knowledge, experience and aptitude to become effective compliance officers. Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care acts may well create demand for graduates with specialized knowledge. After talking with leaders in the industry, we are designing a suite of courses to prepare students for these careers.
Fourth, schools will continue to provide students with a greater understanding of the corporate world in which many lawyers operate. Clients are demanding attorneys who understand their businesses. Interest in joint J.D./MBA programs stems in part from the recognition that students will be more valuable in the marketplace if they understand the premises and building blocks of both disciplines. Schools will supplement that opportunity by offering classes in financial literacy. We are offering a course in entrepreneurialism and the law in an effort to help students both serve the needs of the small business community and chart a path should they decide to parlay their legal skills into a startup venture. Early returns are positive.
Finally, law schools will present more sustained study not only of the corporate world but of the business of law. Courses in law firm management and accounting for lawyers will spread. This fall we are launching an incubator within the nurturing environment of our school to help graduates who intend to practice on their own learn the practical and management skills to succeed.
The Kingsfield model is a great introduction to the legal method, but it is not sufficient. The next generation of skills instruction will strive to prepare students to work more effectively in groups and in different settings to meet the evolving demands of the global marketplace.