Few professions have been spared in the current economic crisis, with the business of law unquestionably among the most affected. As firms conduct mass layoffs for the first time in history and client frustration over billing structures hits new peaks, we may have reached a tipping point. It goes without saying that the fates of law schools and law firms go hand in hand, so perhaps this is an ideal time for academia and practitioners to come together to question, evaluate and reassess the way lawyers are trained.

During much of the past century, lawyers learned a great deal about the practice of law — the skills of interpersonal relationships and client development, and strategies to excel in negotiations, for example — more from observation while practicing law than in law school. As a result, law schools were free to focus on the theoretical — the erudite intellectual debate — and were not required to provide instruction on skills such as drafting interrogatories or subjects such as organizational psychology. I suspect we are past the time for this model to change.  

Clients are refusing to underwrite the training of new lawyers and are demanding that their matters be handled by experienced lawyers. This obviously raises the question of where our next generation of attorneys will gain that experience.

Right now, there is an increased sense among those in the profession that law schools should be stepping in to meet the need. But there are questions as to whether law schools are prepared to accept this role or whether they are best suited to provide this training. And even if they embrace the new responsibility, there remain real questions about the best format for providing this education.

On one side of the debate, there are many who believe that new lawyers need more practical training in the kind of work that new lawyers do, such as drafting client letters, rather than writing appellate briefs, which many are unlikely to be called upon to do in their early years.

Others think the craft of law need not be mastered by new lawyers and that more important talents involve strategic thinking and organizational management skills that right now are more often taught in business school than in law school.

The idea that lawyers will in fact need skills not traditionally taught in law school raises two possibilities. Either the legal profession can let business school graduates offer some of these services (a change striking at the core of what it means to practice law), or law schools can start teaching this new curriculum.

At the same time, there is debate over whether law school should be shortened to two years or lengthened to four years. Those of us in the academy no doubt would relish the opportunity to hold our students captive for an additional year, but the debt burden of law students is substantial and their impatience to begin practice is ever-increasing.

Temple University Beasley School of Law has long prided itself on blending theory and practice in a way that we believe gives our graduates a competitive advantage in the marketplace. We offered some of the first legal clinics and simulation courses in the nation, programs that are now ubiquitous. Along with our extensive externship program, every student is provided the opportunity for experiential learning.

Yet, like many law schools, Temple has embarked on an ambitious plan to re-evaluate our upper-level curriculum. In 2007, we established a corporate clerkship program to give students hands-on experience in corporate legal departments. We are also considering partnering judges and practitioners with professors to offer courses that blend high-level theory with current insights from the field.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. Nor do I expect that change will come from one law school or even a handful of law firms. Rather, I think it is imperative that a dialogue get under way that harnesses our collective experiences from across the spectrum of the industry to think strategically about the role legal education should play during the next 20 to 50 years.

We should take advantage of these challenging times to create a different future. Isn’t that what the practice of law is all about?

JoAnne A. Epps is dean of Temple University Beasley School of Law. She previously served as deputy city attorney for the city of Los Angeles (1976-1980) and as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (1980-1985). She invites those interested in participating in a roundtable discussion on building a new model for legal education to contact her at lawdean@temple.edu.