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"Heading in the Right Direction"

The Pennsylvania Lawyer
Pennsylvania Bar Association
May/June 2014
p. 31-32
Reprinted with permission

By Ken Gormley

Dr. Nussbaum is spot-on in saying that law schools must do more to improve practical skills training so that students are more "practice ready" the moment they graduate. Many of us in legal education have been calling for such changes for decades.

When I first taught property law at the University of Pittsburgh 30 years ago, I took my students on a bus to the recorder of deeds office each spring and had them search a title. Many of my colleagues in legal academia were appalled. My students considered it the best day of the year.

As a former civil-litigation attorney and as a former president of the Allegheny County Bar Association, I've grappled with the issue of skills training for three decades. Now I'm more convinced than ever that law schools must take more responsibility for sculpting graduates who can immediately add value in the workplace.

At Duquesne University School of Law we've taken aggressive steps to overhaul our approach to legal education.

Our first-year civil procedure course is now called "Civil Procedure and Drafting." Our students draft complaints, answers and other pleadings in the first semester. (Not surprisingly, we've discovered that students understand civil procedure better when they learn it through practical exercises.)

Working with then-President of the PBA Tom Wilkinson and his counterpart at the Allegheny County Bar Association, Mark Vuono, we built a new "Capstone Skills Course." Pre-eminent lawyers and judges teach graduating students about nuts-and-bolts topics that were previously deemed unworthy of discussion in law schools: client intake and conflict checks; billing time and filling out time sheets; commencing an action with a praecipe for a writ of summons; drafting basic documents such as wills, leases, etc.; and sharing office space.

Our Legal Research and Writing Program, one of the top-ranked programs in the nation, doesn't just focus on discussing Atlantic 2d cites and writing memos about criminal fact patterns in imaginary states. From the moment they arrive during orientation week, students now dig into real issues involving state and federal law, solving real legal problems.

This barely resembles the law school curriculum that most of us experienced 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. Indeed, the American Bar Association is increasingly stressing the need for more skills training across the board, and law schools are embracing that change.

Last semester Duquesne Law opened its new Tribone Center for Clinical Legal Education in the Uptown section of Pittsburgh, two blocks from the courthouse. We recruited professor Laurie Serafino, a highly experienced clinical director, from Pepperdine University in California. Now we've doubled our ability to provide hands-on experience to our students while serving our community. We've instituted a new Veterans Clinic, the first of its kind in the country; a full-service Family Law Clinic; a new Intellectual Property Clinic; and a Federal Litigation Clinic in which students have presented oral arguments in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and are now handling a jury trial in federal court. (Talk about invaluable experiences!)

We created the McGinley Public Service Law Fellowships program by which students receive paid summer fellowships to work in government and public-service positions throughout Pennsylvania and worldwide. (One student last summer completed a paid internship with the Supreme Court of Costa Rica.)

We can still learn much more, including from the medical school model. Recently I attended a conference for law deans in New York City at which this was precisely the topic. One presenter, a law school dean who began her career as a physician, underscored many of the same points raised by Dr. Nussbaum. Yet she also cautioned that there are dark sides to the medical school model. For one, because medical school entails four years of professional study after college, the median debt load of most medical school students is far higher (approximately $170,000) than that of most law students. Second, the elaborate system of residencies and internships after medical school - during which recent graduates get paid a pittance to develop their skills in hospital settings, etc. - amounts to an unfair burden on young medical school graduates. A 2010 Carnegie Foundation report, "Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency," raised these same concerns.

Moreover, giving academic credit to students for working in law firms and other for-profit entities is generally verboten; this potentially runs afoul of federal labor laws and amounts to a form of exploitation. Instead, the vast majority of law students combine unpaid clinical experiences with paid, part-time positions with law firms, corporate legal departments and other for-profit employers. This gives them a chance to earn income while developing additional skills.

It's worth keeping an eye on the medical school model as we shake up the old Langdellian paradigm by which law students were peppered with Socratic questions until the light bulb of reason blinked on in their minds. There's much more to becoming a practicing lawyer than reciting the facts of Pierson v. Post.

Yet it's also worth remembering that our profession has an assignment that is distinct from that entrusted to other professionals. Our charge is to accomplish justice for clients and society through the proper application of the legal system. Our tools are not scalpels and blood-pressure cuffs but critical thinking and problem solving, skills that must be cultivated through the right balance of practical and cerebral training.

While emulating the medical school paradigm is a healthy start as we revamp legal education to make it relevant in this brave new world of 21st century legal practice, we must remain cognizant that our ultimate goal is to produce highly talented, highly professional, practice-ready lawyers. Attorneys do not remove gall bladders, just as physicians do not draft complex briefs interpreting the Uniform Commercial Code. We should embrace opportunities for change while preserving those healthy differences. ⚖

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Ken Gormley is dean and professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.