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As the legal profession changes, so does UF Law

By Matt Walker

It's no secret that the legal profession is a rapidly changing field, with factors such as technology and globalization reshaping the landscape in ways previously unimagined. At the same time, expectations of the skills new graduates should possess before entering the legal world continue to evolve.

The University of Florida Levin College of Law has always been a state leader in education, and in keeping with that tradition, Dean Robert Jerry, the UF Law strategic planning committee, faculty and staff are looking closely at how the college can best prepare students for this new legal world.

Prepared, practiced, professional

Pascale Bishop, UF Law's new assistant dean for career development said that at her previous school, the slogan "Prepared, practiced, professional" expressed what legal employers like to see in young law school graduates these days.

Bishop said employers are looking for "students and graduates who have already received practical experience, who are prepared to take a file and run with it, and who know how to interact with clients, other attorneys, judges, support staff and the professional world at large."

This might seem like a common sense goal, but it hasn't always been like that in the legal world. Although students in the past received practical experience through internships, externships and clinics, the main thrust of their legal education focused on the theoretical and academic study of legal theories, not hands-on experience.

"The critique is that students can leave law school without really having a deep understanding of what the practice of law is like," Jerry said. "In the past, I think many graduates of law schools nationally have acquired understanding in their first practice years."

So on-the-job-training was the traditional expectation for legal educators and employers alike. Not anymore.

In the last few years, economic pressures combined with a more competitive legal marketplace have led to new normal.

"There is definitely more pressure to be ready to practice from day one with little training or hand-holding, in order to prove (new employees') value to the law firms," Bishop said.

And to meet those expectations, UF Law is looking to the future and staying ahead of the curve by evolving its curriculum to produce graduates equipped to compete in this still-changing legal field.

New Mission guides curriculum

UF Law recently adopted an updated academic mission statement proposed by the College of Law Faculty Senate's strategic planning committee to focus curriculum so students will be optimally equipped to meet the expectations of employers.

The statement hinges on five core competencies: Legal analysis, legal research and writing, fundamentals of client services, fundamentals of dispute processing and legal problem solving, and fundamentals of professional responsibility and identity.

Jerry said UF Law has led the way in legal skills training — pointing out how many law schools today are touting newly added legal drafting programs to their curriculum, a mainstay of the UF Law curriculum for years. But to align with the core competencies outlined in the mission statement, some practical skill areas will gain emphasis.

"We're looking at how we can make what we're doing even better," he said.

Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Alyson Flournoy said UF Law is ready to implement a few changes in the curriculum.

"The faculty has approved a new one-credit legal research course that will be taught by the law librarians to all first-year students beginning next year," Flournoy said. "Also beginning next fall, all first-year students will take a new Introduction to Lawyering course which will provide an introduction to the profession, a segment on professionalism and developing a professional identity and an introduction to the skills lawyers use."

She said this course will provide students with a grounding to understand the legal profession better and help inform the choices they make in their academic program and other career development decisions.

"The strategic planning committee has now turned to focus on developing skills in the upper level curriculum and is looking at an array of options to achieve the goals set out in the mission statement," Flournoy added. "This will build on some recent changes we've made to further strengthen the skills curriculum, including the recently developed Interviewing, Counseling and Negotiation course."

The course will offer a significant number of students the chance to learn these core skills each semester and will serve as a gateway course for all the litigation clinics.

The Center for Career Development is also implementing new and innovative ways to help students succeed after graduation.

"We are incorporating professionalism into all of our programming and making sure that our counseling includes a discussion of how to handle their own professional development," Bishop said, "including taking on new challenges like publishing or participating in bar associations, extracurricular activities or CLEs even as a student."

Bishop encourages students to accumulate practical experience through internships, externships, volunteering, working as a law clerk or even classroom situations involving client problems and simulations.

The CCD added its final team member, Assistant Director Lori Little (JD 99), earlier this month. She will oversee the development and presentation of programs relevant to private practice and professionalism, including events and panels to provide students an opportunity to be heard and meet with practicing attorneys. She will also provide a series of workshops for students on drafting resumes and letters, interviewing skills and networking. Little is a member of The Florida Bar and a certified circuit-civil mediator.