The Future of Legal Education
Seeing Opportunity in the Myriad Challenges Facing Legal Education

From left: Dean Schaumann with San Diego County Bar Association President Marcella O. McLaughlin ‘98 and past SDCBA president Jerrilyn T. Malana '98 (right), with the Hon. David M. Gill, and with Sullivan Hill Lewin Rez & Engel Shareholders Jeffrey D. Lewin '75 and Gary B. Rudolph '81 (right)

Despite a host of challenges facing legal education and the practice of law, opportunities exist today for transforming the legal landscape. If carried out across the country, they would help create a future in which law firms can hire ready-to-work graduates, and meet the growing unmet needs for legal services in the community.

Given the current negative environment, this is an optimistic and ambitious vision, but it emanates from someone on the front lines who has the desire and energy to see it realized: Dean Niels B. Schaumann, who is approaching his first anniversary at the helm of California Western School of Law.

Schaumann is fully aware of the problems and is quick to acknowledge that critical structural problems in legal education must be addressed if law schools are going to regain the trust of students, potential applicants, and the employers who hire them.

“One of the national critiques that I think is completely on target is that the path of legal education has diverged from the path of law practice, to the point where practitioners and academicians seldom interact,” he says. “Students receive a lot of theoretical knowledge in the classroom in their three years, but little or no practical experience. If we trained doctors the way we train lawyers, the life expectancy of Americans would be years shorter.”

This trend must be reversed, and Schaumann believes California Western is poised to lead the way. The school is already one of the leaders nationally among law schools for combining academic excellence with practical education exemplified by strong internship and clinical programs and the nationally-recognized STEPPS program.

“California Western graduates are known among employers for their readiness for the job,” Schaumann says. “When someone opens a door to one of our graduates, we generally get wonderful feedback on the quality of their preparation.”

While Schaumann is proud of California Western’s excellence in “hands-on” education, he says it is only the foundation of a number of initiatives the school has already launched or is planning—ideas he believes will boost the quality of the school’s legal education to unprecedented levels and serve as a model for how law schools should educate lawyers in the 21st Century.

The year-old Access to Law Initiative is one such program. It helps California Western graduates set up their own practices―with advice and mentoring from established lawyers—in exchange for providing at least 100 hours annually of pro bono public service and sliding-scale legal service.

“Access to Law really has two purposes,” Schaumann says. “It functions as kind of law school equivalency of a medical school residency where they can soak up the knowledge of more experienced lawyers who can help them avoid many of the mistakes most young lawyers make when starting their practices.

“What makes it a tremendous win-win is that it brings sorely needed legal services to a segment of our population that can’t afford them. One fallout of our current situation has been that with fewer legal jobs and law firm cutbacks, the availability of legal services has also declined, even as the need for those services in our community has never been higher. We’re thrilled we can help bridge that gap.”

Also in the spotlight is California Western’s core curriculum. The school recently launched a curriculum reform initiative in which faculty members will partner with San Diego lawyers and judges in five practice areas to analyze and revise California Western’s curriculum so that it teaches the core competencies required by employers.

“This may be our most important effort because it goes to the heart and soul of what we teach and whether it relates to the real world and the needs of the legal profession. We’re going to partner with practitioners and work together to develop the new law school curriculum so that we are providing the outcomes they expect from new lawyers—the skills, knowledge, and values a student must be equipped with to succeed immediately upon graduation,” says Schaumann, who is pushing for curricular changes to be implemented as early as next year.

“No doubt some will see this as moving too fast, especially considering we’re talking about an approach to law school that has been entrenched in American legal education since the late 1800s. The point, however, is not to diminish the importance of scholarship and theory but to acknowledge that in a professional school, theory and practice must coexist. We will all have to adapt to this, and I believe it is a change for the better. While we will never short-change our academic excellence, to survive we need to understand that we are training future practitioners who need to possess a high degree of skill in addition to being adept with theory and analysis.”

Schaumann says he has been pleased by the overwhelming support and encouragement he has received from the many legal professionals he has visited across a wide spectrum of practice areas over the last year. Among them are many alumni who have expressed approval for his vision and have offered their assistance.

"They are just as realistic as we are in knowing the status quo is no longer acceptable and they want to be part of the solution," Schaumann says. "So in addition to relying on their generosity for financial support when possible, we're going to tap into this outstanding brain trust to really fine-tune what needs to change, not only now but for years into the future as the legal environment continues to shift."

Schaumann realizes in his quest to reshape that environment, he faces many hurdles, not the least of which are inertia and pessimism. Yet he is remarkably upbeat about the prospects for school’s new vision and he’s confident the job will get done.

“We are fortunate here that we’re already at the forefront of what a sound professional education should look like,” he says, adding with a smile, “And yes I feel like we have to move a mountain in many ways. But if we move our small part of the mountain here by doing great work and demonstrate that to the world, then I know others will pay attention to—and hopefully be influenced by—what’s happening at California Western.”