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In My Words: Law Schools Needn't be the Blacksmiths of Today

Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman recently published a column in regional newspapers about the need for innovation in American legal education.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the (Wilmington, N.C.) Star-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are of the author and not necessarily of Elon University.


Luke Bierman, dean of Elon University School of Law

Law Schools Needn’t be the Blacksmiths of Today
By Luke Bierman (lbierman@elon.edu)

Imagine working as a blacksmith a century ago. “Horseless carriages” crashing into each other. “Aeroplanes” tumbling from the sky. What entertainment watching those newfangled contraptions fail! What job security forging shoes for those reliable old horses!

Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. In short order those aeroplanes were ferrying passengers between cities and across the nation while those automobiles were revolutionizing commerce, leisure and family life. New ways of doing business, of getting around with new forms of transportation, meant that we didn’t need horses to do what horses used to do. And we sure didn’t need blacksmiths anymore. 

Some would have law schools as the blacksmiths of our time. The primary pedagogy of legal education was forged over a century ago and continues to shape the organization and accreditation of law schools today. At a time when information and content are universally available to anyone with a smartphone, many law schools stubbornly cling to their traditional role as purveyors of substantive legal rules and processes in preparation for an equally antiquated bar examination. A 50 percent decline in applications to law school since 2010 indicates that many talented people are forsaking this antiquated paradigm of professional preparation for other career aspirations. 

And there is no shortage of law schools in the news for making painful decisions to scale back the size and content of their institutions as market forces have wreaked havoc on their revenue models. In the manner that now diminished or defunct enterprises like Kodak and Blockbuster continued to rely on narrow sources of income as their markets transformed before them, many law schools remain singularly dependent on their students’ tuition, derived largely from federal financial aid, to fund their operations. 

This fact means that most law schools operate not only with a curriculum in serious need of refreshing and redesign but also with a business model that, as the recent American Bar Association report on financing legal education makes clear, is seriously flawed. 

We in legal education are aware of the circumstances around us. We see the law changing literally before our eyes as technology, globalization and other social, cultural, and economic forces reshape the way the world works and our profession. And we remain steadfast in our commitment to preparing lawyers who can serve essential roles in our country grounded as it is in the rule of law. 

We care about our students and we care about their futures as much as we care about our society. It is from these perspectives that we approach the conundrums confronting us. And it is why I only half-jokingly tell my family and friends: I sleep like a baby at night. I wake up every two hours crying.

Some schools may emulate the airline industry by reducing the number of seats for students, or cutting faculty and staff size of salaries, but who really wants to take a cue from companies that might charge $3 for in-flight pretzels? More creative and thoughtful law schools are redesigning curricula, creating new partnerships with the profession, and adopting new pedagogies that reach a new generation of students. That’s why I harbor hope.  

My law school has reimagined its curriculum to offer significantly more practical experience in a shorter time span that costs much less than previously. Other schools have created online learning opportunities that reach students where they are. Still others offer specific training for specific job opportunities. You also have those that are exploring how to help people while generating fees that pay for their clinical opportunities. 

These innovations reflect the hard work and creative forces that legal educators of good will can devise and implement. 

One path that might offer help to law schools, with additional advantage to clients and others, is to invent new participants in the legal profession and legal education. The state of Washington has authorized a limited license practitioner who can serve clients in specific engagements without the full law school experience or expense, thereby creating new opportunities in law school and in the profession.

Another creative idea might be to establish a system where law faculty provide legal services for a fee that is split with the law school while teaching students who assist in the professor’s client engagement. This approach, which might be structured with the active participation of law firms or corporate counsels, evokes the idea of a teaching hospital where the teacher and practitioner meld into a single person. 

Of course details for these and myriad other ideas would need to be organized in ways that promote the ethical requirements of the profession and the pedagogies underlying teaching.  But again, people of good will and high creativity can work through many challenges to create new ways of thinking and doing. 

I don’t know that these are the “right” answers or complete answers. But why not try? We pride ourselves as Americans on being innovative and well educated and well rounded. As lawyers and educators we should be able to solve problems with new and better approaches. The challenges confronting us are not new and are not going away. Without our attention and creativity, we’re just perpetuating those challenges.   

So, at a minimum, we in legal education need to put on our thinking caps and get to work. We need to update the preparation of our students and we need to diversify our revenue sources. If we don’t, others will fill the void we leave and whiz right by. Just ask a blacksmith.

Luke Bierman is dean and a professor of law at Elon University School of Law in North Carolina.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
12/21/2016 5:25 PM