Sat. Nov 28th, 2020

When he graduated This year law school, Joseph Fowler will follow a corporate spreadsheet as well as learn about case law. Enrolled at the University of Virginia, Fowler is part of a new wave of law students who believe that a strong professional background is critical to their success as lawyers. He says, “It helps you hit the ground faster.”

Traditionally, law school coursework has focused on the nuts and bolts and students need more practical knowledge upon entering the profession. Now students are able to hone their vocational skills through a special concentration, either through joint degrees during law school, or like Fowers. This focus on vocational courses is part of a broader shift to include more specialized and practical training in the law school curriculum.

The drive for more practical education comes from recent changes in the law profession. Clients are opting for more and more lawyers who know how to melt the law with business goals. This industry-specific knowledge is also important for lawyers seeking jobs inside corporations, a market that barely existed three decades ago.

The interest of business experts is even more important inside law firms, where young lawyers must learn to give their clients a shot to lure in a partner. “It’s clear today that to be a successful lawyer you need to know more than the content of the law and argue about it,” says Larry Kramer, Dean of Stanford Law School. But most young lawyers graduate without these skills, with some complaining a lot of people and companies. So law schools around the country are starting to take notes, expanding their offerings in accounting, finance and transaction law.

double kill. Major law schools have long offered joint degree programs with their business schools, but additional years of coursework — and additional tuition — have kept the pool of applicants small. Northwestern University has been at the forefront of change by making it easier for students to obtain dual degrees in business and law. It has consolidated applications from both schools into one and reduced the program to three years instead of four. Since consolidation in 1999, enrollment reached about 25 students in a year. Even regular law students are encouraged to learn the basics of business law. David Van Zandt, the law school dean of Northwestern, says, “The really great theme is that students need to be able to work effectively with their clients and that means what their clients do.”

The University of Virginia has signed a different kind of deal. Knowing that many students do not want to spend time or money – on dual degrees, the school now offers a specialized program in business and law. In addition to the basics of law, first-year students in concentration enroll in basic accounting and finance courses. During the next two years, these students take more specialized classes in securities regulation, bankruptcy and other electives in specific areas such as high-tech start-ups. Professor Paul Mahoney of the University of Virginia says, “We are trying to get students to a point where they have the vocabulary and analytical skills associated with MBA training.”

Stanford has taken a broader view. In 2006, law school began changing its calendar from the semester system to quarters, which is used in every other school on campus. It also increased the number of credits students take outside of law school and encouraged them to take classes in any specialty they feel would complement their legal interests, such as business, engineering, or health. Stanford is also offering classes in which business or engineering students work closely with law students, such as taking an invention to market or modeling a company’s merger.

Meeting of the mind. Other campuses run similar classes. Ken Temer, executive director of the University of California-Berkeley’s Boult Hall School of Law, which also offers joint classes, says they “help bring lawyers and their clients together in one classroom.” The school is also considering creating a full certificate program.

Some universities pursue courses in business even though they do not yet offer formal concentration programs such as Virginia. The New York University School of Law and the University of Michigan Law School have developed mentoring programs for students with a business-oriented law faculty. In Michigan, the effort includes special seminars on business with the visiting faculty. And many schools bring in outside lawyers working in the field to teach these courses.

At the University of Texas-Austin, law school is building clinics to provide students with business experience before graduation. And others, such as Berkeley and Cornell University, are increasing their research efforts and supporting new institutions dedicated to the study of law and business.

Of course, increased expertise could hardly mean the end of basic legal training for law schools across the country. “It’s nothing close to a vocational training,” says Evan Caminker, dean of Michigan’s law school. But for students like Fowler, it is a way to have an edge over the competition. And he would know. He has already worked in the corporate division of a Texas law firm.

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