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Just how do law students learn how to be lawyers?

By Jim BencivengaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 1980


It's no wonder law schools have a conservative image. The students learn what their teachers learned, which is what their teachers learned, which is. . .

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Perhaps one of the least known facts about formal lawyer training in the 169 American Bar Association certified law schools is the high degree of consensus on curriculum content.

Any survey of extant curriculum, any discussion with legal educators about curriculum, as well as any reading on the history of the subject, quickly establishes that when it comes to course content, law schools are one of the most rear-view mirror institutions among US professional schools.

This doesn't mean law schools don't know where they are going, or that they haven't gotten their graduates there most of the time. It's just that no one graduates from law school without experiencing the conserving and nurturing function of the American legal system and its common-law heritage.

For example, a survey of law-school course offering conducted by the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility Inc. shows a remarkable consistency in the required subjects taught.

Dating from World War II, the typical course offering for more than 80 percent of first-year law students will very likely institute: contracts (6 semester hours), criminal law (3), constitutional law (3), legal research and writing (2).

And by the end of a three-year program all law students would have had class work in these areas as well as courses fitting the general categories of legal ethics, legal method/process, evidence, business organization, and taxation.

A conventional legal education consists of (1) relatively large classes (usually 50-150 students) that engage in analyzing 'cases' (usually the opinion of appellate courts) by the Socratic method (the teacher asking questions, the students answering); (2) seminars on topics quite removed from those treated in large classes and utilizing a diversity of materials; and (3) independent research, mainly on or for the law review.

Richard Huber, dean of Boston College Law School, does not see uniformity as all that bad. "With the major but diverse role lawyers play in society it is important that they guard against specialization, at least while they are in school."

Rather than a uniformity of course offerings, Dean Huber is more concerned that "law of schools have not been good at persuading foundations or other agencies to fund them. [After all he posits, the law is meant to be uniform.] Underfunding results in much less flexibility than legal educators would like with large classes, especially in the fundamental courses."

On the whole, he says, a poor faculty-student ratio, when by undergraduate standards, exists at far too many law schools.

A critical factor when considering law school curriculum is that admittance to gainful practice of law hinges on passing ABA sponsored state bar exams. The curriculum must reflect the need of law students to successfully complete bar exams and law schools that fail to do this won't exist.

Milton Katz, with teaching assignments at both Harvard and Suffolk Law School in Boston, suggests five functions that a law school performs for its graduates and society:

* Train the graduate to make a living.

* Provide reasonably qualified members for the practicing bar and the bench.

* Provide graduates who will make significant contributions to the progressive enrichment of the legal system.