It’s safe to say the uncertain economy of the past four years has left its mark on just about every industry, including the legal profession. The job market is as competitive as ever, and both students and employers want to know graduates are prepared to work from day one on the job. The old way of thinking with firms might have been, “get the degree and we’ll train you,” but there’s been a shift in that thinking over the last few years.
“Given the current economy, law firms are finding it more difficult to justify spending time and money on training new hires upon graduation,” said John DiPippa, UALR William H. Bowen Law School dean emeritus.
There’s been much written about the American Bar Association’s change in standards for law school accreditation in the last few years. These changes include creating curriculum centered on core competencies, including lawyering skills. Bowen, though, is more than 32 years ahead of the curve on meeting these challenges.
“Our curriculum has been focused on core competency skills for years,” DiPippa said. “We required a course in trial skills pretty much from the day we opened our doors in the 1970s. In fact, we now require two courses in lawyering skills. What we’re seeing, now, is everyone else catching up to what we’ve been doing for years.”
What purpose does Bowen see to offering skills-based courses, aside from meeting ABA standards? The No. 1 benefit is that Bowen graduates are trained and well-prepared to contribute from the day they graduate.
Professors structure their classes so that graduates are ready to practice right out of the gate. They are reexamining their syllabi to match their course competencies to the core as set forth by the ABA. Tad Bohannon, partner with Wright, Lindsey, and Jennings and adjunct professor, teaches local government. He incorporates the school’s core competencies in three ways: teaching students how different types of law get pulled into issues facing local governments; drafting—students draft a legally valid ordinance to solve a real-world problem; and, hearing firsthand about the issues facing local governments from those in the trenches. They hear from mayors, city attorneys, the Arkansas attorney general, and Gov. Mike Beebe about real-world problems and solutions those in government deal with every day. This helps students see it’s not always practical or feasible for problems to be solved by threatening a lawsuit.
It’s not just professors who feel they’re preparing students to practice; graduates will tell you they were ready to practice when they left school.
“Though I had a legal background upon entering law school, the skills-based courses are what prepared me to practice as a lawyer,” said Valerie James, a 2008 Bowen graduate and assistant dean for admissions and scholarships. “Law school teaches you how to ‘think like a lawyer,’ and conduct research, but Bowen teaches you the practical application of what you’re learning and puts it into a real-world situation.” In addition to Bowen’s focus on law skills, James credits the school’s emphasis on writing and research as adequately preparing students for the practice of law.
“Not only do students have the typical first-year writing and research requirements, but we have an upper-level writing requirement, as well,” James said. “We want to make sure students have mastered those essential skills.”
Law firms recognize the benefits of Bowen’s emphasis on the essential law skills.
“What we see in the clerks from Bowen are individuals who have a better grasp of what we, as lawyers, can do to solve real world problems as opposed to law clerks who report ‘in X versus Y, the court said this,’” said Bohannon.
Sarah Cowan, third-year student, said it was Bowen’s focus on preparing students for the actual practice of law that drew her to the school.
“At Bowen, there’s really a focus on learning what you’re actually going to be doing when you get out of law school,” said Cowan. “There are students who graduate from other law schools who don’t know how to draft a complaint or know where the clerk’s office is.”
While Cowan has taken advantage of clerkships and externships, she cited Bowen’s offering of various clinics as really preparing her for entering the workforce.
“I’m taking the mediation clinic this semester,” Cowan said. “We’ll participate in eight mediations. This clinic setting, while small, will give me one more skill that sets me apart when it comes to finding a job.” Cowan credited Bowen’s combination of work experience and curriculum for giving students a realistic, eye-opening look at what it’s really going to be like to practice law.
“I know from talking with friends who attended other schools, Bowen’s lawyering skills course is unique,” said Cowan. “But, when I talk about how the program prepares students, you can see them nod along like that would have been beneficial to have where they went to law school.”
James pointed out Bowen’s curriculum doesn’t just prepare students for the practice of law, but it prepares students for the business of law.
“In our law office management course, students learn about office management, how to secure a loan, business development; skills that are all important to the business part of being a lawyer,” said James.
A final component of a Bowen education that James and Cowan both point to as preparing students for practicing law is public service.
“The faculty here does a great job of instilling a sense of public service in the students,” James said. “We’re seeing more and more law firms requiring community service of its attorneys, and there are just so many opportunities available to students at Bowen so this gets ingrained early.”
Cowan echoed James’ sentiments about the importance of public service at Bowen.
“The school really emphasizes access to justice,” said Cowan. “It’s one of the core values. So, whether it’s being introduced to the Arkansas Access to Justice in our first year or hearing about opportunities for pro bono work, I think we’re given a good foundation to structure our practice that helps us fulfill ourselves professionally as well as fulfill the need to give back to our communities.”
Bowen will prepare for the reaccreditation process in a couple of years. Whether it’s meeting curriculum standards, graduating practice-ready lawyers, or providing students opportunities to fill pro bono requirements, Bowen is well-positioned to handle any coming changes from the ABA.