Carnegie Examines the Education of Lawyers and Calls for Change

January, 2007
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The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching examines the way that law schools develop legal understanding and form professional identity in a new report, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. The authors call for rethinking the curriculum to better prepare graduates for the practice of law.

Over two academic semesters, a research team from the Foundation visited 16 law schools in the United States and Canada. The schools, many of which were among the more selective law schools, are both public and private, and were chosen to be geographically diverse, ranging from coast to coast and north to south. Although the team found law schools to be "impressive institutions," able to impart a distinctive habit of "thinking like a lawyer" that forms the basis for their students' development as legal professionals, they also found the need for innovation and improvement.

"The calling of legal education is a high one—to prepare future professionals with enough understanding, skill and judgment to support the vast and complicated system of the law needed to sustain the United States as a free society," said William Sullivan, one of the report's authors. "Unfortunately, despite some very fine teaching in law schools, often they fail to complement the focus on skill in legal analyses with effective support for developing ethical and practice skills."
The authors also say that law schools give only casual attention to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice. And they found that in the first year of law school, students are often warned not to let their moral concerns or compassion for the people in the cases they discuss "cloud their legal analyses."

"This warning does help students escape the grip of misconceptions about how the law works as they hone their analytic skills," Sullivan said. "But when the misconceptions are not addressed directly, students have no way of learning when and how their moral concerns may be relevant to their work as lawyers and when these concerns could throw them off track."

The authors reexamined "thinking like a lawyer"—the paramount educational construct currently in use—and the Socratic, case-dialogue instruction used in the first phase of every student's legal education, and found problems in the creation of a "conformity in outlook and habits of thoughts among legal graduates."

"The dramatic results of the first year of law school's emphasis on well-honed skills of legal analysis should be matched by similar skill in serving clients and a solid ethical grounding," the authors note. "If legal education were serious about such a goal, it would require a bolder, more integrated approach."

In response, the authors call for law schools to offer an integrated, three-part curriculum: (1) the teaching of legal doctrine and analysis, which provides the basis for professional growth; (2) introduction to the several facets of practice included under the rubric of lawyering, leading to acting with responsibility for clients; and (3) exploration and assumption of the identity, values and dispositions consonant with the fundamental purposes of the legal profession.

"In order to produce such integrative results in students' learning, however, the faculty who teach in the several areas of the legal curriculum must first communicate with and learn from each other," the authors said.

Educating Lawyers, published by Jossey-Bass, and written by Sullivan, Anne Colby, Lloyd Bond, Carnegie President Lee S. Shulman, and Judith Welch Wegner, who led the study from which the publication grew, follows earlier studies of professional education by the Carnegie Foundation, beginning with the landmark Flexner Report on medical education of 1910. As the Foundation enters its second century, this book becomes part of a series of reports on professional education that result from its decade-long Preparation for the Professions Program, encompassing studies of the education of clergy, engineers, nurses and physicians. The study of legal education was a Carnegie project supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The report can be purchased for $40 from Jossey-Bass.


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