The Future of Legal Education was the focus of the New York State Bar's Presidential Summit yesterday at the New York Hilton. David M. Schraver, standing, president of the state bar, introduces the panel, left to right: James R. Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association; William M. Sullivan of Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers; Phoebe Haddon, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law; Jenny Rivera, associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals; and Kent Syverud, chancellor of Syracuse University.
The Future of Legal Education was the focus of the New York State Bar’s Presidential Summit yesterday at the New York Hilton. David M. Schraver, standing, president of the state bar, introduces the panel, left to right: James R. Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association; William M. Sullivan of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers; Phoebe Haddon, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law; Jenny Rivera, associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals; and Kent Syverud, chancellor of Syracuse University. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Syracuse University’s new chancellor offered a hopeful assessment Wednesday for the future of law schools, despite the sinking applications, enrollments and revenues that have cast a pall on many institutions.

“We do not have a crisis in legal education,” Kent Syverud told more than 400 lawyers attending the presidential summit at the New York State Bar Association’s annual meeting at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan.

Rather, Syverud said law schools experiencing a 20 percent average increase in expenses versus revenues face what he called a “management challenge” that should be embraced as an chance to produce better and more practice-ready graduates.

“It is not even an unusual management challenge,” said Syverud, who was dean of Washington University School of Law before recently taking over at Syracuse last month. “The fact that it’s unusual for American law schools to see this great a swing is interesting, but in almost every other sector of our economy, including legal services, it’s a management challenge that’s quite familiar.”

He said many schools are “embracing” their financial troubles as an “opportunity to get better” and to take on “calcified practices” that have been hard to change in the past.

“Those that don’t adjust are going to fail,” he said. “That’s a good thing, too. This is America. There is no constitutional right for you institution to continue forever without changing or evolving.”

Syverud was on a panel on the future of legal education that was moderated by James Silkenat, the Sullivan & Worcester partner who is currently president of the American Bar Association.

Others on the panel were Jenny Rivera, a state Court of Appeals judge, and University of Maryland School of Law Dean Phoebe Haddon.

Silkenat said he has spoken and written more about legal education since becoming ABA president last year than on any other subject surrounding the legal profession.

“If I was asked four or five years ago whether legal education was going to be such a critically important topic for the legal profession, I would have come up with the wrong answer,” Silkenat said. “But now, this topic, legal education, is a of real and immediate importance to really all of the legal profession.”

Silkenat said he believes that legal education in the United States remains the best in the world, though he acknowledged that many negatives have attached themselves to the subject: “high cost, few jobs, inadequate training and declining applications to law schools,” he said.

“It needs to continue to evolve to match up with the changes that are taking place for all of us in the legal practice on a day-to-day basis,” Silkenat said.

Rivera, a longtime law professor at the City University of New York before she was tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Court of Appeals last year, said she worried that law schools will lose sight of the “heavy burden” they bear to promote racial diversity despite the financial pressures many schools are facing.

“Law schools must remain committed to providing access to a diverse pool of law school applicants,” said Rivera, the second Hispanic to sit on the Court of Appeals. “As this bar association has recognized, the integrity of our legal system depends on access to the legal profession of individuals of a broad range of experiences and economic and social communities.”

Haddon said a fundamental “mismatch” has developed where there are a large number of unemployed or underemployed lawyers and a huge number of people, some say as many as 30 million, who need legal representation for one purpose or another.

“How do we bring together unemployed young lawyers with people of moderate or low income who need legal services?” Haddon said. “Money is obviously some part of the problem, but it’s not all of the problem. In fact, most of the research that has been undertaken most recently tells us that it is not the cost of lawyers that drives people away.”

Haddon said some of the research suggests that many of the people who go unrepresented at such proceedings like housing court or in family disputes don’t even known they have a “legal problem.”

“What they’re characterizing as other problems are what we know to be legal problems or legal problems about to come to full fruition,” Haddon said.

She added that law schools must work with the bar and bench to develop coordinated approaches so more underemployed lawyers can work in areas of the law where clients need them to help close the “social justice gap.”

Prior to the panel discussion Wednesday, William Sullivan, founding director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers and the author of a 2007 Carnegie Report on the future of legal education, told the presidential summit that his group is studying a promising method of educating students at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Law.

It entails giving about two dozen students more hands-on experience in their second and third years of law school and exposing them to more real-world experiences in which their professors serve in the same role as law firm partners.

Successful students, who work all along with New Hampshire bar examiners, are automatically admitted to the bar upon graduation without having to pass the state’s bar examination.

By all indications, the New Hampshire experiment is “quite promising” at producing practice-ready graduates, Sullivan said.

“This fits with what we now know, or think we know, from the learning sciences, about how more effectively to educate people to perform complex tasks, such as legal practice,” Sullivan said.

A second discussion Wednesday at the presidential summit focused on challenges to the legal profession, such as globalization and developments in technology.

That panel included Frank Jimenez, general counsel at Bunge Limited; Anne Reynolds Copps of Copps DiPoala in Albany and Benjamin Wilson, managing principal of Beveridge & Diamond.

Stephen Younger of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, a former state bar president, moderated he discussion.

The state bar meeting continues until Saturday and is expected to draw about 4,000 attorneys to participate in its section luncheons and dinners, continuing legal education sessions and other events.

Highlights Thursday include a luncheon speech by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the Criminal Justice Section and a speech by a Harrisburg, Pa., psychologist, Arnold Shienvold, before the Family Law Section on how lawyers can maintain their sanity while dealing with clients going through highly-charged family law litigation.