Educating Lawyers for the 21st Century

Chris Guthrie (Photo by Sandy Campbell)

We are facing a time of great change in the legal job market and in the way law is practiced. Thus, law schools must better prepare our students not only to obtain legal jobs but to excel in their chosen careers. That’s why we asked our Board of Advisors for input on our upperclass academic programs when we met April 12.

Vanderbilt’s eight academic programs provide opportunities for upper-level students to specialize and provide curricular, co-curricular and experiential learning opportunities in multiple fields, including corporate and securities law (the Law and Business Program), international practice (the International Legal Studies Program), intellectual property and entertainment law (the Intellectual Property Program), public interest law (the Social Justice Program), criminal law (the Criminal Justice Program), environmental and property law (the Energy, Environment and Land Use Program), and public policy (the Program in Law and Government).

We asked our board members for guidance in designing these programs to prepare students for long-term success—how to help them develop the skills they need to meet the challenge of legal practice in the 21st century. We received some valuable feedback that I’d like to share with you. Here are some important factors that members of our board believe should inform our upper-level curriculum going forward:

Thinking like a lawyer remains the bedrock of a sound legal education and law practice. Vanderbilt is known for teaching students rigorous analytical skills during the first year and for upper-level coursework that hones those skills. In addition to offering academic programs that allow students to gain an in-depth understanding of a chosen field of law, we’ve also made two simple but important changes to provide an even better foundation for a lifetime of legal practice from the start. First-year students are now divided into three sections, each with approximately 65 students, to increase classroom participation and foster relationships between students and professors. We also introduce basic legal concepts during orientation week with a one-credit course, The Life of the Law, to ensure that students entering Vanderbilt with degrees in science, engineering, music and other fields that offer little grounding in our legal system understand these concepts before they walk into their first law class.

Law practice is increasingly global.

Vanderbilt graduates need to be prepared to deal with a world in which businesses and individuals can literally “shop” for the most favorable legal regime that governs the activities in which they wish to engage. Fewer and fewer lawyers will find themselves dealing only with the laws of a single state or country.

Law practice is increasingly specialized.

Vanderbilt is on target in offering upper-level tracks that allow students to choose a combination of traditional “bar classes” and courses that provide in-depth exposure to fast-evolving, technical and complex areas of law.

The need for legal services has never been greater.

There’s a gap in access to legal services that innovative attorneys should fill. While corporate clients will always have representation and indigent clients may qualify for free legal services through government, pro bono and advocacy programs, many small businesses and middle-income people have difficulty affording legal representation. For example, too few home buyers and sellers hire a real estate attorney to represent them, although that guidance could be crucial to avoiding pitfalls and in negotiating the terms of purchase, sale and loan contracts.

Law graduates should hit the ground running.

Clients of law firms are no longer willing to pay firms to train their associates. This means that outstanding training in foundational skills is critically important—and that we must continue to provide more opportunities for specialization and on-the-ground learning.

Law graduates must be team players.

Our well-established culture attracts team players and encourages collaboration and collegiality. In fact, Vanderbilt’s culture was a big reason why I chose to teach at Vanderbilt, and it informs our approach to every aspect of running the law school. Our board makes a particularly important contribution in this respect. Its members understand the importance of Vanderbilt’s culture to its long-term success and help us make decisions that ensure we maintain our values while we adapt to a changing practice environment and a challenging job market.

I greatly appreciated the helpful feedback we received from board members, and I’d also like to hear from you. What challenges are you currently facing in your legal practice? What do you think we should do to better prepare our students for future employment? What aspects of your Vanderbilt legal education contributed most to your success?

I welcome your input and your ideas and appreciate your continued support of our great law school.

Sincerely yours,
Chris Guthrie
Dean and John Wade-Kent Syverud Professor of Law

Summer 2013 Vanderbilt Law Magazine