Focus on Outcome, Not Income

All right, I admit that my title isn’t quite accurate, but it does have  that alliterative quality that makes for a memorable catch-phrase. What I am refering to here is a thought-provoking post at Clinician’s With Not Enough To Do regarding a shift in the focus of higher education to stress “outcome” over “input.”  The author, Carolyn Grose, is a member of the “Future of Legal Education Task Force”, a force I am certain is paying close attention these days to the problem of helping crops of new attorneys hit the ground running as traditional legal jobs dry up.

The post excerpts a presentation to the William Mitchell College of Law outlining the Task Force’s progress to date on how to render legal education responsive to the needs of modern lawyers and their firms and clients. In keeping with the American Bar Association’s recent injunctions regarding accreditation, the Task Force opines that legal education needs to shift from “input” to “output.” “Input” is what students are taught. “Output” is what students know and can perform. This boils down to increasing the “practical wisdom” of students passing out of the third year and into the real world.

Seems a Herculean task. But a laudable goal without a doubt. In keeping with an “outcome”-driven approach, the Task Force suggests working backwards in designing the curriculum. The first step in this backward progress is identifying desired “outcomes” for law grads. The areas of proficiency deemed most important include: basic legal knowledge of core subject matter and legal systems, process and source of law; the skills of analysis, research, communication, and representation; and, professional conduct and judgment in the use of knowledge and skills.

None of these “outcomes” seem particularly earth-shattering: they track the same “outcomes” my school seemed interested in imparting 20 years ago. My question is:  What does the Task Force suggest regarding the degree of emphasis to be placed on each outcome? In other words, how much effort should be placed upon instruction in “core” subjects and how much should be focused on research, writing, analytics, organization and communication, both written and oral?

I believe the answer should lie, at least in part, in educators’ assessments of how easy it will be for a fresh attorney to glean the knowledge and skills after graduation. Emphasis should be placed on the knowledge and skills that are peculiar to the profession or more difficult to learn without academic guidance. Students cannot bank on the chance that they will find their personal “Yoda” who will help them use the “Force” to defeat the Dark Side; good mentors are few and far between in the real world. Who has time to help a new associate understand how to navigate a completely unfamiliar area of law and cogently explain his or her findings to a partner focused, now more than ever, on the elusive bottom line? When will the most prestigious law schools “buy” this “outcome”-based approach and drop the pretense that ivory-tower academics should win out over practical skills training – the nuts and bolts of the average lawyer’s every day practice ? Until there is a major shift in perceptions across academic institutions and the largest firms regarding what really matters in practice, there is unlikely to be widespread change regarding the nature of legal education.

Which brings me back around to my original point: the title of this post. Maybe it isn’t that far off the mark, after all.

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3 comments on “Focus on Outcome, Not Income

  1. All this good advice & Northeastern’s thinking about modifying their fabulous internship program to be more mainstream? What gives?? I, for one, certainly hope not. Apprenticeship (as we once upon a time called it) is an invaluable tool & one which, in my opinion, needs to be institutionalized within more of our legal education programs.

  2. That is a sad turn indeed for Northeastern. And funny you should mention “apprenticeships”, as I was just explaining the concept to our children about two hours ago. About how Robin might have actually been Batman’s apprentice, rather than merely his sidekick. Wouldn’t you rather be a partner’s apprentice than just a “sidekick?”

  3. Pingback: Five Blogs Under the Radar: May 2009 Edition | Guilda Blog

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