Law Schools Pivot in Search of Brighter Future

Demand for legal education is on a downward spiral, but the best law schools see this as an opportunity for innovation

Legal education is in flux, and not just because of the disruption caused by coronavirus, with law school heads predicting big changes in how and what they teach on their flagship LL.M. courses in the future, ranging from the expansion of experiential learning to online and niche degrees in fast-growing areas like intellectual property or business law. 

A major challenge for law schools has been the decline in number of people applying to full-time LL.M. courses. Many lawyers have been put off by the prospect of having to leave a salaried job and return to campus for at least 12 months, though Covid-19 has made that impossible for now. 

“I think that the competitive environment we have been seeing will continue into the future, and the best law schools are seeing this as an opportunity,” says Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean, Fordham Law School. 

More experiential courses; online learning

Jaeger-Fine cites an exposition of experiential courses pre-corona as law schools strived to ensure their graduates were prepared for practice. With employers demanding a greater focus on practical skills, it seems likely that more law schools will add experiential elements to complement their academic theory in the years ahead. 

Many have already rolled out legal clinics, for instance, where students support real clients with legal problems, often related to social justice. “We have added drafting, externships and other experiential courses to our LL.M. curriculum,” adds Jaeger-Fine. 

She also anticipates more online programs to be launched, a trend that is being accelerated by campus closures because of the coronavirus. In recent years, several top law schools have launched “hybrid” LL.M. courses that meld in person and online study — including Berkeley Law and Columbia Law School. 

The key advantage is that students do not need to quit their jobs; campus lectures are taken in the summer break. So rather than cannibalizing existing LL.M. courses, they may be attracting people who would not otherwise consider a graduate education. 

“Part of the changing landscape is the growth of online graduate law programs,” says Jaeger-Fine. “There are obvious benefits to traditional in-person programs, including eligibility to sit the New York bar exam, but this trend is here to stay.”

In addition, she foresees greater customization of the law school syllabus. Several niche areas of law either emerged or rose to prominence in 2019, such as intellectual property law; amid growing concerns over IP theft in an economy that is rapidly becoming digitized.  

Fordham recently introduced an option for LL.M. students to stay on for an additional semester and receive a degree in two areas of concentration, such as international business and trade law.

“Schools are innovating and working harder than ever to meet the needs and expectations of prospective students,” Jaeger-Fine says. 

Digitization will affect the legal profession

For Christoph Schalast, law professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, digitization will dominate law schools in 2020 in more ways than one. Not only are new online delivery methods going to be developed, he predicts, but digitization is affecting the legal profession itself, and law schools will need to adapt to this shift.  

“Legal thinking alone will no longer suffice in the future,” Schalast says. “There are already numerous online platforms or software that replace or optimize legal practice.” 

Lectures in legal informatics or on legal tech must therefore be offered, he adds. “This requires universities to be technically equipped to give their students a basic understanding of these developments.” 

Many law schools have already moved in this direction – several have launched LL.M.s focused on using technology to deliver legal services in the past few years. This is a response to demand from employers, who understand that the top fee-earners are not just the brightest legal minds; they know how to apply technology to services. 

Many economists predict that law is among the professions most ripe for automation by intelligent algorithms, so staying ahead of the curve of change could be crucial for LL.M. students. 

The trend of law schools launching legal services LL.M. courses looks set to explode, according to Schalast. “Students would like to have more courses on intellectual property rights, data protection, law on digital platforms, social media law, programs for automated document creation, legal chat bots and other automation tools.” 

Future-proofing law students requires a cross-disciplinary approach to education, Schalast adds. His own institution is an example of where legal education may be heading as the specialization trend continues to grow: it blends business and law degrees. 

Schalast cites the example of the LL.M. course focused on mergers and acquisitions — another area that is gaining rapidly in appeal. 

“With our interdisciplinary approach, specialist legal, business and tax knowledge is imparted in order to train the participants to become highly qualified M&A consultants,” he says. 

Current evidence suggests that more students will look for specialized programs as well as online and technology focused courses, as law schools pivot their offering to staunch the application decline. 

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