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Legal educators are not known for embracing innovation and new teaching techniques, but some law professors are pushing for change amid a tight law job market and pressure for schools to produce practice-ready young attorneys. More than 100 lawyers, deans and law professors met in New York on Friday and Saturday for the last of three conferences dubbed “Future Ed.” The conferences, spearheaded by New York Law School and Harvard Law School, were designed to swap ideas on how to update legal education, increase practical skills training, rein in costs and come up with ways to translate ideas into action. Individuals and groups discussed projects that would leverage technology to improve education; rethink the law school admissions process; incorporate more transactional skills into curricula; and improve professional development. The culmination of the conference series was a vote among participants to allocate a fictional pot of money to the projects they thought most worthy. In the end, the top vote-getter was Apps for Justice: Learning Law by Creating Software, created by a team of educators and business people headed by Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Ron Staudt. The project’s purpose is twofold: Students learn about technology and substantive law by creating software applications that walk users through legal scenarios or offer other legal support, while lawyers and the public benefit from online resources that would help improve access to justice for everyone. “They can focus on tools practitioners can use themselves to ‘work smarter’; they can focus on tools that legal advocates and other kinds of helpers can use to assist those with legal needs; they can focus on systems that self-helpers can use to address their own legal problems and opportunities,” the proposal reads. The Apps for Justice team proposed launching pilot programs at five law schools with a grant from the Legal Services Corp. The programs would harness distance-learning technology. The team estimates the two-year cost of the program at $440,000. Legal Ed participants recognized several other proposals, including one that would create a network of law schools that share online games and simulations that teach law and engage students. Proponents pointed out that New York Law School is already using legal games to teach. Other projects that received significant support addressed assessments of distance education; a non-traditional 3L curriculum that emphasizes experiential learning, which focuses on direct experience as a teaching tool; and a program that emphasizes simulated practice using people trained to act as legal clients and through software that simulates legal situations. Addressing the participants, New York Law School Dean Rick Matasar praised their ideas and enthusiasm, but cautioned that almost all of their ideas would do little to tamp down the skyrocketing costs of legal education. “Is there no end to where tuition will go?” he said. “$50,000 a year is tomorrow, which is really $70,000 when you add in living expenses.” Matasar urged participants to think creatively about how to improve legal education in ways that won’t create even higher costs. While law firms are clamoring for practice-ready new associates, several participants noted that skills training and clinics are often the most costly instruction to provide, due to low student-to-faculty ratios. Technology emerged as a major focus of the conference, with participants pitching numerous ideas about how to leverage distance education, software and other online tools to engage and instruct students. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association is considering loosening up its accreditation rules, which now prevent law students from taking more than 12 credit hours via distance education. The ABA’s Standards Review Committee has proposed boosting that limit to 20 credit hours, although it does not appear poised to offer accreditation to wholly online law schools, such as Concord Law School. Technology wasn’t just a source of talk during the conference, however. Matasar announced a new consortium of six law schools that have agreed to consider collaborating on new technology initiatives. He said the group would look at creating an online platform for delivering distance education that the schools themselves would own. This would allow experts from different law schools to teach across campuses. The groups will also consider developing legal education content such as games and other learning tools, Matasar said. “Legal education significantly lags the rest of higher education in integrating online learning and other educational technologies into its programs,” Southwestern Law School Dean Bryant Garth said in a written statement announcing the group’s formation. The University of Miami School of Law, Australian National University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law are joining New York Law School and Southwestern Law School in the new consortium. Conference participants recognized that change is difficult to bring about in the risk-averse world of legal education. Several speakers urged participants to go beyond talk and lobby their deans and fellow faculty members to embrace innovation. “We think the challenge here is Future Ed institution and Future Ed individual,” Matasar said during his closing address. “The talk we’ve been having needs to translate into action.”

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