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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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At Stanford University, a move to a quarterly calendar makes it easier for students to take classes in business, the environment, education, and computer science, for example. The first year of law school still grounds the students firmly in legal reasoning and analysis. But after that, everyone is encouraged to gain subject-matter expertise.

Even before the recession, says Stanford Law Dean Larry Kramer, clients were seeking more guidance from their lawyers than simple explanations of what the law permits. "Now the client wants to know: How can I make this work better?" he says. "You have to know something about the business." Over the past six years, notes Kramer, there's been a twentyfold increase in the number of non-law classes taken by law students and a ninefold increase in students pursuing joint degrees.

[Find out why business and law go hand-in-hand.]

Many schools have concentrated on retooling the third year, which often is criticized as lacking focus. Washington & Lee University School of Law, for example, has created a third year that's almost entirely practice-oriented. Students are taught mostly in a practicum style, simulating cases rather than studying law books or debating a professor. In the required litigation class, they role-play a case from the initial client interview through discovery, settlement negotiations, and trial. In the sports law course, participants representing a mock professional athlete negotiate a contract with those representing team management.

Ultimately, a sense of true purpose may be a prerequisite for anyone considering law school going forward. Peter Kalis, chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates, a firm with nearly 2,000 lawyers worldwide, says the long-term issue for both law schools and law students is how best to adapt to market forces. Despite a pullback in hiring at big firms, law school applications were up last year, as recent college grads struggled to find jobs.

"Law school graduates are flooded into a marketplace that's no longer able to absorb them at salary levels that let them retire their debt," Kalis says. The great recession, he says, taught law firms a hard lesson about supply and demand—and now law schools must absorb it, too.

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