Ouch. I think it is fair to say that these articles generated quite a bit of discussion within the Academy, with reactions ranging from agreement to recriminations that singling out law from American higher education for criticism is unfair.
Wherever one lands on the-value-of-legal-education debate, however, it’s an important discussion to have. Why? Because we should care about the health of the profession and developing the next generation of environmental attorneys. It’s a valuable exercise to take stock and see how we can do better.
The continued development of law in service to society to solve environmental problems requires talented lawyers. I also believe that legal education has value beyond what is traditionally considered environmental legal practice. For example, in my experience as a government attorney advising natural resources agencies, public administrators with JDs tend to be highly valued and successful because they possess critical thinking skills, the ability to synthesize volumes of information, and good writing skills. I think we have undersold the value of a JD, its broad application to the job market, and as a foundation for entrepreneurial careers.
But, to be a flexible degree with real world results, changes in legal education are needed. In fact, changes are being made by some law schools. In an article entitled The New JD, The Stanford Lawyer, an alumni magazine, describes Stanford’s multiyear process to overhaul its legal education to better prepare its students for a challenging job market and for careers beyond law. (Joan O’C. Hamilton, The New JD, Stan. Law. (June 11, 2012). Some of these changes include interdisciplinary programs, real problem solving, and full-time clinics. These types of law school reforms, which create needed value for today’s law students, require a shift in emphasis to embrace experiential learning, new fora for learning, greater appreciation for the value of practitioners, and a deep acknowledgement of the complexity of the world’s problems to which traditional legal education may be ill-suited.
The reality is that the new environmental lawyer may not be a lawyer at all. She may be the director of a land trust, the founder of an energy consultancy, or the administrator of a resource agency like so many JDs before her.
In the final analysis, the journey to law school and beyond is a worthwhile one. And, it is up to us to make it so.