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Measure of Legal Education's Value Extends Far Beyond Big Law

Despite the critics, law school still provides a solid foundation for civic responsibility.

This article originally appeared in The National Law Journal on Sept. 28, 2015.

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Recently at law school orientation, I conducted a first class for the incoming first-year students. I introduced them to several of the broad themes they will encounter throughout their study of law. What does it mean to be a professional? What are the intellectual and emotional demands of practicing law? What are the lawyer's obligations to clients and the rule of law? In sum, I asked them to consider the values of a life in the law, what it means to take a leadership role in a rule-of-law society.

I teach this class every year. Every year I walk away energized, optimistic, impressed by the engagement of these new students, confident in their success and the vitality of our profession.

Then I return to my office, where I can usually find at least one fresh media report about how law schools are broken and questioning their relevance. And I wonder: Are all of these amazingly gifted, motivated, data-drenched young people reckless, ill informed or desperate? Do they simply not understand the pressures, economic and otherwise, that have kept so many of their peers from applying to law school over the past several years?

Of course not. Quite the contrary.

No one disputes that the ­economic model of legal education needs to be modified. Law schools have been slow to restructure their corner of the triangular relationship among the history of tuition increases (and how they are financed), the exorbitant starting salaries at law firms, and the extraordinarily high fees clients pay for the work of law school rock stars. But the fact is, law schools are making the required structural modifications and thinking deeply and creatively about their students' needs in an increasingly dynamic legal services sector.

The criticisms — constant and haranguing — are terribly shortsighted. They are premised on assessments of the initial value of a law school education, not the socially critical values law school ­teaches. Evaluated in this way, disheartening numbers are readily available. To look at real worth, much more perspective and nuance are needed.

Students who choose to come to law school despite all of the empirical gloom and doom are doing so for what have always been the right reasons — not because they are liberal arts majors at wit's end about a career path and not because law school is a reliable entree to social status and financial gain.

They are coming because they want to be advocates and problem solvers. They want to learn the sharp, analytical cast of mind law school teaches. They recognize that an ethical practice of law is central to the functioning of a system of ordered justice and how that ordered justice upholds the rule of law. They are returning to first principles. They seek values, not just immediate value; they seek the necessary qualities of leadership, not just leading roles at the top of an increasingly unreliable ladder of success.

RETURNING TO PRINCIPLES

This means law schools, too, must return to first principles and organize themselves in line with what these students are seeking. We must teach them to engage the practice of law with the values and leadership necessary to succeed. And we must base that teaching not just on our own assumptions of what they need, but on what we learn by engaging with the practice world our students will occupy upon graduation.

The measure of a law school then must not be based solely on the value of its initial return on investment upon graduation, but on how well it instills values such as ethics, respect for the rule of law and deep understanding of the jurisprudential thought that roots our conceptions of liberty and freedom to the rules regarding an ordered administration of justice.

The value of law school is in how well it teaches the policies and principles that undergird the social compacts we agree to as a society and which lawyers are uniquely charged with understanding and protecting while advocating for successful, just outcomes for their clients' disputes.

The measure of a law school must be based as well on the traits of leadership in law we teach, not merely whether students upon graduation ascend to leading law firms or lead the march to the one percent. Leadership in law means developing the judgment and strategic thinking skills necessary to know not only what is allowable under the law in any given context, but also how and when a legal resolution should apply. We must teach our students that a lawyer's leadership is critical to the successful, civil resolution of problems just as it is critical to the functioning of our rule-of-law society. We must show them that how we practice law is inextricably linked to how justice is delivered.

To see institutions charged with this responsibility as irrelevant or of little value defies logic. It defies history. And it disparages the thoughtful and courageous decisions of new law students who take on the challenge of becoming a lawyer when the common assessments of that decision advise against it.

Of course law schools must do all they can to make legal education available and unburdensome upon graduation. But it is in being too fast to believe the claims of law school's irrelevance and offering uninformed change for change's sake instead of redoubling our commitment to teaching law practice-relevant values and leadership that we give credence to the ­criticisms.

- James Lupo is a professor of practice and dir­ector of the Center for Practice Engagement and Innovation at Northwestern University School of Law.

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