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Preparing for the Real World: More Law Schools Add Practical Course

by Robert W. Denney

For years it's been said that law schools prepare students for the profession of law but not the practice of law. Now a recent report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, reports that while some improvements have been made, legal education still pays little attention to training students in how to actually practice. But note the good news—improvements have been made. What's more, the trend is gaining momentum.

Focusing on Practice Skills and Practice Management

By now, every law school seems to understand that good writing is an important practice skill. However, many schools still struggle over how much emphasis they should give writing programs compared to more traditional courses. It is encouraging to note that one of the country's newest law schools, the Drexel University College of Law, has created a legal writing program taught by tenured and tenure-track professors.

Of course, more and broader practical courses are also needed. Probably the pioneer in presenting such courses was Gary Munneke, who began teaching a practice management course at the Widener University School of Law's Wilmington, Delaware, campus in 1982. Munneke, who has written widely on various areas of practice management, now teaches a similar course at Pace University School of Law.

According to Munneke, only about 50 law schools offer some sort of practice management course and, until recently, the number of schools doing so had been static for the past 10 years. This year, however, at least three law schools are offering new courses on, or related to, practice management.

Among these institutions is the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which is offering the course "The Law of Law Firms" to second- and third-year students. The idea for the course came from Michael A. Fitts, the law school's dean, and from Mark Alderman, managing partner of the Philadelphia firm Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. Alderman teaches the course.

So far the class, which is mostly discussion based, has examined issues such as compensation, governance, conflicts, multioffice jurisdictions and business development. Students give presentations on the partnership structure, compensation, geographic markets and cultures of the firms they will be joining upon graduation. The class also addresses ethics and the effect working in a firm might have on young lawyers.

Taking a Different Approach

Almost (but not quite) around the corner from Penn, Mary Beth Pratt is teaching a course for third-years at Temple University's Beasley School of Law. The title is "Legal, Professional and Business Aspects of Law Practice." Pratt, former chief marketing officer at Pepper Hamilton, designed the class and has taken a somewhat different approach from Munneke's and Alderman's programs.

The class's students are split up into four mock law firms. They have written up partnership agreements and are creating financial, human resources, marketing and business development plans. In addition, Pratt has brought in speakers to critique the plans and to discuss topics ranging from case management software to client relations. Will the course continue into coming school years? "I would hope," she says, "that it would become a regular elective that was part of the overall curriculum."

This recent trend is not limited to Pennsylvania law schools. This semester the Detroit Mercy School of Law launched a pilot known as the "Working in the Law Firm Program." While only 18 students are enrolled in the pilot, starting next year the school will require all of its 180 third-year students to earn at least four credits in the program, which will offer a total of 26 credits. At the core of the program's curriculum (which is described on the school's Web site), students are required to work on complex transactions just as they would in a law firm—meaning they work with their colleagues in "departments" so that different groups of students work on the different aspects of the transaction. Students can then see how the various pieces of a matter (e.g., the environmental piece, the tax piece, the employment law piece and the intellectual property piece) come together in the one transaction. These department modules, the school's site says, are designed to introduce the students to large firm issues and to smaller or "boutique" firm issues as well. Sure, there are probably still some traditionalists who abhor this trend. But the bottom line is that more practical courses—such as those offered by these schools—begin preparing young lawyers for the realities of practicing in today's environment. Whether they choose to work in a law firm, a nonprofit, in-house, in government or in a completely different type of entity, being prepared to practice in the real world has to be a positive thing.

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