Amid Changes, Law School Tries to Get Real

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The financial crises and recession of recent years left no part of the global economy unscathed, and that includes the rarefied legal field, which has seen revenues drop 10% at U.S. firms since 2008. Yet perhaps no industry has been as slow to meet the international and technological challenges of this new austere era. And that reluctance to adapt to the times seems especially evident at law schools, where "legal education hasn't really changed in the past 30 or 40 years," says Richard Susskind, the author of The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services.

Susskind was recently a guest lecturer for an innovative project that aims to change that. Dubbed LawWithoutWalls, the new University of Miami School of Law program, which debuted in January, is designed to give the theoretical milieu of law school a dose of the new realities of law practice. "Law school and law practice aren't keeping pace with the 21st century," says University of Miami law professor Michele DeStefano Beardslee, who developed the course model.

Partnering with institutions like Harvard Law School, University College London Faculty of Laws and the Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, China, LawWithoutWalls uses state-of-the-art technology to share new legal concepts and tools across borders and in tandem with experts from fields like business, who often join the interface along with legal scholars. "We're taking the dynamic interaction that happens in a real law classroom and applying it to an online process across cultures and disciplines," says Michael Bossone, a program co-creator who had to experiment with various Web applications (Zoho works best against the "Great Firewall" of China) to make it all function.

In this class, the lecture hall is cyberspace, a videoconference linking students and professors in places as far-flung as Miami and Shenzhen. And the topic on this particular day isn't torts — it's the controversial boom in legal-process outsourcing (LPO) and other cost-saving devices for law firms.

At the top right of the screen, Bao Shengyuan, 28, a student at Peking Transnational, asks about pitfalls: "Shouldn't there be ethical obligations for nonlawyers who provide assistance outside the firm?" Former American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm agrees. She raises issues like protection of client information when LPO workers in countries like India, and not a firm's own associates, review case documents, especially via the Internet. "We're witnessing the restructuring of the legal profession," she says, "but we still have to ensure rules like attorney-client privilege."

One goal of LawWithoutWalls is to prepare today's law students — who are graduating into one of the bleakest hiring landscapes in memory — for all sorts of different global legal work, like trade litigation: for example, since 2005, annual caseloads at the American Arbitration Association's International Centre for Dispute Resolution have risen more than 50%.

Another big shift that the program aims to illuminate is the "commoditization" of law, embodied by Britain's 2007 Legal Services Act. It permits nonlawyer ownership of law firms and lets them offer nonlegal products like financial services — a reform many legal purists decry as barbarians crashing the bar, though backers insist it improves competition and access to legal services. When this semester's 23 LawWithoutWalls students (who also hail from Fordham Law School and New York School of Law) gathered at a Miami conference in April to present course projects, University College London student Anna Pope found herself clueing U.S. students in to the new "alternative business structures" of British law — and their potential conflicts. If a law firm can be listed on a stock exchange, Pope asked, should it represent a plaintiff suing a bank with which many of the firm's shareholders have accounts?

Either way, "lawyers everywhere have to be more commercial-minded today," says Pope, 31, an attorney training to be a professor. "This course is a wonderful way to break down barriers and question the old way of doing things." And DeStefano Beardslee thinks the U.S. can't resist the new way of doing things for long. "Today," she says, "issues across the pond inevitably become our issues as well." States like North Carolina are considering law-firm reforms similar to Britain's. Meanwhile, "alternative" firms like New York–based Axiom Law, which technically aren't law firms but offer the menu of legal, financial and other services now provided in Europe, are sprouting up in the U.S.

One expert judging the LawWithoutWalls projects, in fact, was Mark Harris, an attorney who, burned out by Big Law's treadmill, co-founded Axiom in 2000 with business executive Alec Guettel. "We wanted to take a fresh look at what a law firm is, without the mahogany paneling," says Harris. By outsourcing work that expensive armies of associates do at traditional firms, involving lawyers in a broader spectrum of services and ditching the age-old billable hour for fee arrangements like flat rates, Harris says, Axiom's attorneys can work more efficiently while its clients, which include about half of the Fortune 100 companies, can see their out-of-house legal costs drop by as much as half.

All that is impressive — but is it what law schools should be teaching? Does LawWithoutWalls, which gives students bona fide degree credits, risk diminishing legal education by effectively turning a J.D. into an M.B.A., by training managing partners instead of competent lawyers? Hardly, says University of Miami School of Law dean Patricia White. "While the traditional and distinctively legal skills will continue to be essential, they will no longer be sufficient for an increasing number of lawyers," she insists. "Law schools must be less myopic."

More journal articles advise law schools to "provide the type of education the market demands rather than serving lawyers' and law professors' preferences," as University of Illinois law professor Larry Ribstein recently wrote in the Iowa Law Review. But it's the Internet generation that gets it best. "Technology and globalization have touched everything," says LawWithoutWalls student Kara Romagnino, 26, of the University of Miami. "If I'm going to be a lawyer, I can't keep thinking it doesn't touch me too."