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If the law is becoming more of a business, should law schools become more like business schools?

At many top campuses, the question is no longer purely academic. Confronted with a changing legal profession, leading law schools are mulling whether they need to change themselves to better prepare students for the new realities of practice.

“Law schools are increasingly aware that their graduates are not going to be going out and working at 30-lawyer firms where decisions are made in the hallways or collegially over lunch,” said John P. Heinz, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and co-author of an upcoming book about the changing profession.

Many law schools, said Mr. Heinz, have responded to perceived changes in the marketplace and set a goal of training lawyers who better understand the world of business and can more easily put themselves in the shoes of clients.

To further that end, law schools are turning to business schools for inspiration. The team-based, case-study approach to instruction pioneered at business schools is now commonly found at law schools. Where law schools once based admissions solely on grades and test scores, some are now stealing another page from business schools and considering applicants’ work experience as well.

But many law professors, while they say they welcome some changes, warn that wholesale adoption of business-school practices risks producing less-capable lawyers.

“The larger part of business school curriculums is about learning skills,” said Jonathan Macey, a professor-designate at Yale Law School who has taught business school classes at Cornell University. “Learning the law is much more subtle.”

Cross-pollination between law and business faculties is already taking place at many of the most prestigious universities in the nation.

Last month, Harvard Law School launched a Program on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry, headed by Professor David Wilkins, a specialist in the legal profession. Mr. Wilkins said the program, which will sponsor research on both the profession itself and relevant issues in legal education, will benefit from the participation of faculty from Harvard Business School as well as lawyers in private practice.

Law schools, said Mr. Wilkins, are already adopting “something more like the business school case method than the law school case method.”

The former, he explained, places an emphasis on participatory learning by students, who are often placed in teams and graded based on their performance in a simulated matter or transaction. Such law school classes, he said, served to “highlight real lawyering.”

Columbia Law School Vice Dean Richard Briffault said his school is giving increased attention to classes that “show the interplay between law and business.”

Mr. Briffault pointed to Columbia’s “Deals” class, in which small groups of students take a case-study approach to actual corporate transactions, often assisted by the lawyers handling the deals. He said the class, a second- and third-year elective, has been so popular that the school will offer five sections next year, accommodating about 75 students.

Joint Degrees

Some schools have gone much further in adopting business school practices. Under Dean David Van Zandt, Northwestern’s law school has not only adopted case-study instruction methods for many classes but has also sought to boost the number of its students who earn business degrees.

At most universities, students wanting to earn both J.D. and M.B.A. degrees must apply to law and business schools separately and are lucky to work out class schedules that let them graduate in four years. Students can apply to Northwestern’s law school and its top-ranked Kellogg School of Management together and graduate from both in three years. Mr. Van Zandt said about 10 percent of his students are jointly enrolled at the business school.

Perhaps most controversially, Mr. Van Zandt has made applicants’ work experience a major factor in the law school’s admissions process, along with grades and standardized test scores. He said that as many as 70 percent of the school’s current students have worked for some period before entering law school.

Mr. Van Zandt said the emphasis business schools place on work experience rather than grades means business school students generally have a maturity and focus lacking in law students. The latter, he said, frequently enter law school directly from college out of fear of actually embarking on a career.

“The people who are so risk-averse are the people we want to keep out of law school,” said Mr. Van Zandt. “What we want are people coming in who can come right out and understand the background of clients’ problems.”

Others agree there are benefits to considering work experience in law school applicants.

Stanford Law School Professor Deborah Rhode said law schools, with far fewer entrance requirements than medical or business schools, provided fresh college graduates with the professional “degree of least resistance.”

Considering applicants’ work experience, she said, would “screen out students who are in law school by default.”

“A lot of students are pretty clueless about the profession and what their lives are going to be like after they graduate,” said Ms. Rhode. “They think they’re going to save the world on Wall Street salaries.”

But she noted that many law schools would be wary of adjusting admissions criteria to take greater account of work experience. She said Stanford experimented in the 1990s with admitting some students based primarily on their life experiences but stopped after some faculty expressed concern that the average test scores of Stanford students would drop.

Mr. Macey said it is good for students to have work experience but added that law schools should not underestimate the value of pure academic excellence.

“The reality is that law, much more than business, selects for raw intellectual power,” he said, adding that he believed students with work experience would not necessarily prove to be either the best students or the best lawyers.

Thomas Merrill, a Columbia Law School professor who taught at Northwestern until last year, said, while law schools could learn much from business schools, his former school’s approach was “a little mechanical and a little overboard in trying to superimpose the business school model.”

Many business school classes are relatively superficial, said Mr. Merrill, while law school students have to absorb a larger amount of substantive knowledge.

Moving law schools too far in the direction of business schools would short-change aspiring lawyers by giving them a program of study that was “neither fish nor fowl,” most likely taught by adjuncts and assistants rather than full-time professors, he said.

Messrs. Macey and Merrill said nothing developing in the profession warrants radical change to law schools. The top practitioners in the profession, both men said, are among the most academically oriented, continually publishing articles on innovations in the law.

“We must be doing something right,” said Mr. Merrill, noting the vast numbers of successful alumni as well as the many students willing to pay high tuitions in order to attend the top schools.

Though law firms and their clients have clearly grown in scale, Mr. Macey said, less has changed about client service than is often claimed.

“To be a good business lawyer in 1950 or today, it was always necessary to understand your client’s business,” he said.

Oxford Program

Even as law schools debate the degree to which they should emulate business schools, one law firm has decided that instructing lawyers in client service may be best handled by an actual business school. Last year, the Said Business School at Oxford University in England established the Clifford Chance Centre for the Management of Professional Services Firms, funded by the London-based law firm.

Professor Tim Morris, the director of the Clifford Chance Centre, said it was primarily a research program at the moment but said he envisioned offering short courses either for lawyers taking on management roles at their firm, non-lawyer professionals working at firms or even candidates preparing to study law.

Indeed, as part of the firm’s sponsorship, Mr. Morris said the program had agreed to train a number of Clifford Chance lawyers to look at business issues more broadly.

“All of the big firms in London are increasingly saying we don’t just want people who are good, technical lawyers,” said Mr. Morris, noting that many British and European firms thought their American competitors were already much more adept at advising their corporate clients in non-technical ways.

The law faculty at Oxford, he said, had not devoted many resources to such issues.

“They wouldn’t worry about that in the least,” he said.

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