University of Denver

Foundations for Practice and the Evolution of Law Schools

Communications Coordinator
IAALS Intern

For years, law school graduates have struggled to find full-time employment, facing a highly saturated, fiercely competitive job market. There continues to be a gap between what law schools teach and what legal employers expect from new graduates—and not enough traditional law firm positions to hire them all. In a recent Law360 article, Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency (and also a special projects advisor at IAALS), said: “There are still too many graduates for jobs and that problem is only going to get worse.”

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Facing criticism about enrollment and education quality, law schools have trimmed class sizes and shifted to more hands-on, experiential learning. While we have the data to assess law school class size and job outcomes, we knew much less about the type of education new lawyers need until IAALS began its Foundations for Practice project to identify the skills and traits that lawyers and legal employers consider crucial to the success of new lawyers. In other words, to fully address the crisis in confidence, we must first fully understand it.

According to our empirical research, it wasn’t necessarily a lawyer’s knowledge of business or legal skill that predicted their early success. Rather, survey respondents identified character traits such as integrity, work ethic, and resilience as especially critical to successful new lawyers and satisfied employers.

This knowledge sets us up to improve law school curricula. This year, IAALS entered the next phase of the Foundations study in cooperation with four law schools—Northwestern, Columbia University, Seattle University, and the University of Denver—to turn these foundations that are necessary for new lawyers into actionable learning outcomes for law schools and hiring tools for legal employers. We are developing these learning outcomes to empower law schools to strengthen their curricula by ensuring that students are learning and being evaluated based on the characteristics and competencies they need to succeed—beyond an understanding of legal theory.

Alli Gerkman, the senior director at IAALS who leads the Foundations for Practice project and IAALS’ work within the legal profession, told Law360: “What we’re trying to do is help law schools make sure they are teaching and identifying the skills they say are so important and also thinking about how to get employers to have a broader set of hiring criteria.”

Seattle University is well on its way to embracing this shift. For example, their clinics have embedded law librarians to show them how legal research works in the real world. The librarians also have the opportunity to ensure clinicians are up-to-date on new technology. As the next phase of Foundations for Practice takes shape, Seattle University and our other partner schools will dive deeper into reshaping learning outcomes, assessments, instructional designs, and hiring tools to help ensure that law students are better prepared to secure employment and hit the ground running.