Christopher Columbus Langdell, first dean of Harvard Law School in 1870, formalized what is now classic legal education, pioneering the use of the Socratic method and a course of study driven by reading appellate court decisions. But “the world of law has changed,” Harvard Law School’s Dean Elena Kagan recently announced, and so finally has Harvard’s curriculum. This year first year law students will be required to take a new course, among others, on legal problem solving, i.e., resolving clients’ dilemmas rather than simply analyzing abstract legal issues. Other law schools, including Stanford and Northwestern, have incorporated similar programs into their curriculum. 

A recent survey conducted by Pace University School of Law of midsize law firms in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey asked firms to name a law school with the ideal curriculum. Nearly 60% couldn’t identify even one. About a quarter of the firms cited the greatest weakness of law school graduates as a lack of real-world experience. Over 20% of the firms polled felt that law school curriculum should include some clinical experience.

“You can get a J.D. without having any connection with a client,” said Mark Heyrman, director of clinical programs at the University of Chicago Law School. “No medical student could graduate without at least having some patient contact.”

The clinical component of law school education is expanding. And there are external prods. The American Bar Association now requires accredited law schools to offer “real-life practice experiences.” Some state bars are also mandating certain client training before associates can interact with clients. And, as pointed out in an earlier blog note, corporate clients may designate how senior an associate has to be before working on their matters.