The legal roller-coaster
By Matt Walker
Technology and globalization are reshaping the legal landscape in ways previously unimagined, the job market is bouncing back from the Great Recession, and expectations continue to evolve for the skills law graduates should possess before entering the working world.
“The environment is defi nitely more difficult today than I think I’ve ever seen it for young lawyers getting hired and then getting started,” said Florida Bar President and UF Law alumnus Scott Hawkins (JD 83).
UF Law is changing, too, as it strives to give graduates the skills, knowledge and savvy to thrive in the new normal for working lawyers. Here are the stories of how UF Law rolls with the changes.
For law students who struggled for three years to master the substantive topics of law school, the fi rst day of practice might come as a shock. Course work on appellate case law, civil procedure and torts may be replaced in the working world with a bewildering bustle of client interviews, dispute mediation and plea-deal negotiations.
So how to join the pedagogical imperatives of law school with the down-to-earth necessities of legal practice?
The Levin College of Law works to meet this challenge with its recently revamped mission statement and key curriculum changes in the fall semester.
“The critique is that students can leave law school without really having a deep understanding of what the practice of law is like,” UF Law Dean Robert Jerry said. “In the past, many graduates of law schools nationally have acquired that understanding in their fi rst practice years. Our aim is to accelerate the students’ acquisition of this knowledge of what it means to be a legal professional.”
Florida Bar President Scott Hawkins (JD 83) agrees that well-prepared Gator grads are a necessity in today’s fast-paced and frequently changing legal marketplace.
“If you can help get new grads prepared where they can be more valuable more quickly than in the past, I think that will be valuable for UF Law and its reputation, and for the profession,” Hawkins said.
UF Law has long been ahead of the curve in areas like legal drafting, trial advocacy and alternative dispute resolution. Courses that will launch in the fall semester are set to further deepen students’ practical skills.
“The strategic planning process focused in on enhancing instruction in legal research for a number of reasons,” said Amy Mashburn, head of UF Law’s strategic planning committee and of implementing the new curriculum. “But partly this refl ects feedback we were getting that our students needed more intensive hands-on instruction on how to do legal research and how to use computer-based legal research earlier in their legal education.”
Mashburn (JD 87) said the planning committee consulted students and lawyers, including UF Law’s Board of Trustees, and studied evaluations of legal education trends like the Carnegie Report to evaluate curricular changes that would be most benefi cial to students.
UF Law’s curriculum will shift in three major ways this fall: the addition of Introduction to Lawyering: Serving Clients and Society; moving the current course, Professional Responsibility, from the fi rst-year curriculum to the second year; and the creation of separate Legal Research and Legal Writing courses from what is currently a single course combining the topics.
Introduction to Lawyering will expose students to professionalism in the workplace, developing a professional identity and an introduction to lawyering skills and the role of problem solving in law practice.
The course will include guest speakers brought in for their familiarity with the hottest legal trends.
“Nothing can replace having judges and lawyers and other legal professionals who are out there in the world doing this to assist us with educating the students,” Mashburn said. “So a big part of the program is to ensure that our students get some exposure to those professionals in the first year.
“We want students to understand the power and potential of a law degree and to get real examples and role models to encourage and inspire them,” she said.
Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Alyson Flournoy points out that the introductory course will also expose students to interviewing, counseling, negotiation and mediation skills. While trial skills are generally the skills new law students are most familiar with, the new course will “introduce them to the whole toolbox of skills and competencies that they may want to acquire or start to acquire through the curriculum here,” Flournoy said.
Mashburn notes that the UF Law curriculum will still contain plenty of its traditional law school fare — what professors call “substantive” law courses. The new curriculum introduces a measure of “balance.”
“We hope that the acquisition of those skills is central to their legal education,” Mashburn said. “This also introduces a bit of balance because if you look at the traditional lineup of substantive law courses in their fi rst year, they are predominantly reading appellate cases and reading about law in a litigation model.”
For Paul Pakidis (3L), immediate-past editor-in-chief of the Florida Law Review, summer internships made him appreciate the connection between his legal education and the real-world application of skills.
“The experiences helped me draw a more definite connection between our work in the classroom and the actual practice of law,” Pakidis said. “Also, they helped me develop a sense of what type of law I want to practice.”
He said making that association even earlier could be beneficial for students.
Hawkins, The Florida Bar president, supports the idea of exposing students to a broad set of skills in their first year — he said some of the skills he learned at UF Law helped distinguish him among his peers early in his career.
“Being effective is not only being able to think well, but it’s being able to execute and perform,” Hawkins said. “And that’s not just a matter of trial skills, it’s learning how to think strategically. So, I think that focus is important — getting students to think early on about thinking strategically on handling a case, handling an interview, handling a presentation. It’s not just a matter of putting the words together, but having a sense of ‘where do I want to end up in this matter?’”
Hawkins stresses that young lawyers should approach their work with a “valueadded” mindset — always thinking about how they can serve the law firm or client in the best possible way. He said this approach is crucial for young lawyers and can impact their identities early in their careers.
Hawkins quickly sorts out young lawyers who carry themselves with a sense of maturity and self-discipline from those who “seem not to get it all.”
“I guarantee you every partner is plugged into what’s going on in his or her law firm, paying attention to how their young lawyers behave,” Hawkins said. “It’s not just a matter of brain power, it’s a matter of knowing how to carry yourself like a future owner of the business because that’s what being a partner is all about. It’s not a popularity contest.”
“I think if we can help students become more attuned to that mindset, that will benefit the students, and thus the profession and the school,” Hawkins said.
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