Finally: A Time For Lawyers To Ask Questions When They Don't Know the Answers

Those of us in positions of leadership in legal education must undertake a serious and genuine review of the system so we do far more than merely fix what we didn't like about our professional preparation.
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In the traditional law school classroom -- the kind you saw on The Paper Chase, the kind you read about in One L -- professors instruct solely by relentlessly asking intimidating questions. It's a counterintuitive approach. And yet almost without fail, the professors' highly directed questions elicit from the students themselves the essential principles behind rulings, cases and entire areas of law. The students, having discovered those principles seemingly on their own, absorb them all the better for it. But in truth, it is the questions that got them there.

It's called the Socratic method, and the nation's law schools would do well to apply it to themselves today.

If you are anywhere near the orbit of a law student, lawyer or law professor, you have heard the thunderous criticism being aimed at law schools in the wake of the economic downturn. The criticism has come from all sides -- from viral videos in which law school graduates urge their 16-year-old selves to reconsider their decision to enroll, to the August University of Chicago Press, publisher of a (very insightful) book called Failing Law Schools. The critiques accuse law schools of being out-of-touch, slow-moving, opaque institutions and many boil down to an argument that they are a losing financial proposition.

It has not gone unnoticed. It would be difficult to find institutions doing more soul-searching than our nation's law schools. But such soul-searching will not be productive unless -- like the famous Professor Kingsfield -- we are asking ourselves the right questions.

It's true, as I've said, that law schools have taken the heat for frustrations born of forces larger than themselves: the global recession, the collapse of major law firms, more sophisticated clients and technological advances facilitating outsourcing and access to legal information, to name a few. The fact remains, however, that law schools have an imperative to position their graduates for success in the profession, and the current disruption in the legal market demands that we take a hard look at ourselves.

Many have conducted that examination by asking how law schools might tweak the pedagogical approach that has reigned since Christopher Columbus Langdell introduced and popularized the "case method" of instruction at Harvard Law School in the late 19th Century. Incredibly, over a century later, it remains the prevailing method of instruction at law schools today.

I'm afraid, however, that we need more than tweaks. Those of us in positions of leadership in legal education must undertake a serious and genuine review of the system so we do far more than merely fix what we didn't like about our professional preparation. We must summon institutional fortitude and question the very assumptions, now more than a century old, that have brought legal education to this disruptive moment. If as lawyers we are to remain relevant in a country based on the rule of law, we must have the courage to recognize the transformative activity around us--transformation as profound as it was a century ago when a rural agrarian society morphed quickly into an urban industrial age--and boldly adapt our profession and our preparation.

Thus, rather than looking at our ancient pedagogy rooted in Langdell's Socratic method and asking how we might adapt it to the present, we should ask ourselves an entirely different set of questions, which look to the future rather than the past, and might include:

• What will the profession look like in 25 years, and how can we best prepare students for it?

• How might we harness the power and creativity of technology to deliver legal services more efficiently and economically to a broader group of people?

• What role can data analytics play in legal education?

• What new business models will emerge in the legal profession, and what skills will be needed to excel within them?

• What are the possibilities for collaborative legal problem solving, and how might we help make them reality?

• What are the primary ethical concerns that lawyers face in a world with global law firms, global clients, and rapid technological advancement?

• How might we educate law students more efficiently and economically, using new knowledge about learning and new techniques not known a century ago, or even a decade ago, in order to cut the time and burdensome cost ubiquitous in legal education?

These are the types of questions that will truly transform legal education. The answers remain to be seen, but an alliance of legal educators from more than 80 law schools from coast to coast and border to border have begun to work on them. At a symposium this past fall at Northeastern, legal educators from nearly half of all ABA-accredited law schools, law students and leading law firms gathered to develop innovative new approaches to law school curriculums and begin to forge new partnerships between law schools and legal practitioners. In addition, Innovation Labs, borrowing techniques for creative thinking, are now cropping up at law schools such as Michigan State and Northeastern, intending to encourage bold new solutions to the problems facing legal education and the profession. And these initiatives are just the start.

If we keep asking these bold questions and thinking outside the box, I suspect the legal classrooms that emerge will look little like Professor Kingsfield's.