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Law Schools Adapt to Big Shifts at 'Biglaw'

Belt-tightening law firms are changing both the curriculum and the job market.

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Law schools have always tended to do a fine job of teaching students to think like lawyers. Now, thanks to a seismic shake-up in the legal profession, the client's perspective is getting its due, too.

Top-ranked and lesser-known law schools alike have been working for a while now on revamping their programs of study, augmenting rote study of legal concepts and cases with hands-on opportunities to counsel real and imaginary clients. But the recession—more specifically, painful downsizing at the country's largest law firms—has forced law schools to pick up the pace.

"We're in the midst of an important moment of transformation for law firms and the legal profession," says David Wilkins, director of Harvard Law School's Program on the Legal Profession. "The recent downturn has been accelerating these changes."

The goal is to turn out attorneys who, upon joining a firm, already can meet client expectations in a suddenly dog-eat-dog job market. "Students have to be adding value when they walk in the door," says former Northwestern Law School Dean David Van Zandt, who shepherded through significant changes at that institution before becoming president of the New School in New York in January. One example: Northwestern is one of a handful of schools that have begun targeting older students, who already have acquired some real-world savvy, by offering them a J.D. in just two calendar years.

[Get expert advice on getting into law school.]

The law firms putting on the pressure, meanwhile, are weathering some of the most significant turbulence in decades. Corporate clients, which represent the bulk of revenue for "Big­law," are insisting on getting more for their money, both by rebelling against the open-ended hourly billing system and by insisting that experienced lawyers handle their business. "More clients are telling their law firms that they don't want first- and second-year lawyers working on their matters," says Linda Addison, a partner in New York with Fulbright & Jaworski.

One result, according to a November report by the National Law Journal, is that the head count at the country's 250 largest law firms fell in each of the past two years, by about 5 percent all told, as young associates were jettisoned. Partners fared a bit better; their number ticked up by 0.6 percent in 2010, compared with an increase of 0.9 percent the prior year.

While the worst of the recession now appears to be over, the pre-2009 salad days are unlikely to return anytime soon. Most firms are hiring again, but at much reduced levels, says Ward Bower, a principal with Altman Weil Inc., a legal consulting firm in Newtown Square, Pa. Before, the largest firms might have hired 70 or more first year associates annually, he says; now the number is more like 20.

Starting salaries are flat or down, too, according to NALP—the Association for Legal Career Professionals in Washington, D.C. The median starting pay at firms with more than 700 lawyers in New York and Los Angeles was still $160,000 in 2010, but markets like Boston and San Francisco dropped from that level back to $145,000. Overall, the median starting salary at private firms dropped to $115,000 last year from $130,000 in 2009.

[See how law firm recruiters rank law schools.]

Belt-tightening at larger firms has had a ripple effect, pushing grads to pursue government and nonprofit jobs they previously wouldn't have considered. "I feel that I'm competing with everybody, for every job I've applied for," says Jeremy Wolff, 31, a 2010 graduate of Northeastern University School of Law in Boston who left a technology career to focus on civil rights or social justice work. He currently is working as a research consultant with a team of professors from his law school, covering his living expenses but not providing enough to begin paying down his six-figure debt. "If I knew then what I know now, I would emphatically not go to law school," he says. "I think the legal job market has fundamentally changed."

The urgency for law schools to handle more practical training is being felt even at the top. In the traditional contracts class at Harvard, students have long mastered the concepts by studying appellate decisions written by famous judges. Now, all first year students also take an intensive problem-solving workshop in January in which they consider contract questions from the point of view of a hypothetical client—an entrepreneur looking to form a joint venture, say—and work out terms that best protect the client's interests.