Dean Paul Schiff Berman is a legal movement-maker. After ramping up the curriculum at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, he’s come to George Washington University Law School with plans to better integrate hands-on experiences in legal courses. Berman talked with U.S. News about changes to the law school curriculum and offered tips for students hoping to optimize their chances of landing a job after graduation.
1. How has the job market changed for current law students?
I think that it's clear that the 150 largest law firms in the country scaled back over the last three years or so, though that may be shifting again. Nobody knows for sure how much of it is cyclical and how much is a true paradigm shift. I do think that there are still many law jobs available—they just aren’t necessarily in the usual places that students look.
2. Where are they?
Everywhere you look in society, it seems to me, there are people who need lawyers who can't get them. Those may be people who are very poor and need public interest and pro bono lawyers, but they also may be individuals or families or small businesses that need lawyers and who are never going to be in a position to hire large commercial law firms.
[See the rankings of the 2012 Best Law Firms.]
3. What advice do you give to students wondering how those types of jobs will affect their ability to pay back student loans?
Law school debt is obviously a big issue for students. I think that law schools need to institute more programs both to help students work themselves into the job market and to help with loans.
I also think, when thinking about loans, students need to consider that the legal education is meant to prepare them for 40 or 50 years of practice, not simply the first year out of law school. The loans are a significant issue, but students should take the long view and think about their earning power as lawyers over the course of an entire career.
4. How can students prepare themselves for these types of jobs—and others?
I think students should work during their time at law school to volunteer, intern, do part-time work at various agencies, solo practitioners, small firms, and put themselves in a position where they can really hit the ground running coming out of law school. I think that people want to hire students who are go-getters. People who are energetic, dynamic, hard workers will continue to be able to get jobs.
[Find out why you should research job prospects before considering law school.]
5. Are law schools teaching relevant courses for today’s legal job environment?
I think that the core of law school still provides an ideal foundation for a varied legal career and for educating students in how to think in a sophisticated way about legal problems. However, I also think that law schools can be more innovative, particularly in the second and third year, to provide students with greater connections to both law practice and hands-on public policy work.
6. How is GW attempting innovation?
My goal is to create more individualized pathways for students so that the traditional cookie-cutter model of legal education no longer applies. We want to create integrated opportunities so that over three years, you can focus in an area; take a set of courses; connect to the world of practice through an externship; do a capstone project with a professor; and graduate with a true expertise and a marketable certification in a particular area you might be interested in.
7. Do joint law programs, such as a J.D.-M.B.A. track, make law grads more attractive in the job market?
I think that it might well make students more attractive, though I think that law schools can provide more opportunities for students to have interdisciplinary experiences, even apart from a joint degree.
At GW, we're working to create a program where law students and business students can work together on behalf of entrepreneurs. That would provide students with both contacts in the business community and also a working understanding of how to be a lawyer to a business person. My guess is that kind of experience would be marketable.
8. Are your students concerned about some trends in the legal industry, such as outsourcing?
They see lots of negative publicity about the legal hiring market and it makes them worried. The reality is, if you take the long view over the course of a long career, a legal education remains a tremendously valuable degree, in terms of job prospects in law, job prospects outside of law, and just in terms of teaching core critical thinking skills.
It's certainly the case that in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, having an advanced degree is incredibly valuable—and I think increasingly so.
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