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Nation’s law schools revamp curriculums

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Harvard Law School updated its courses a year ago, emphasizing what its students would face when they graduated, said Mike Armini, director of communications at Harvard Law School.,”Law schools across the country are updating their curriculums and refocusing on ethics to keep up with current law practice. Many law schools are adding extra electives and ethics courses, as well as emphasizing trial experience.

Harvard Law School updated its courses a year ago, emphasizing what its students would face when they graduated, said Mike Armini, director of communications at Harvard Law School.

"Our overarching goals is to make sure legal education is more in keeping with current legal practice and to further internationalize legal education," Armini said.

He said the school isn't focusing as much on cases as it did in the past, but more on legislative and executive branch regulations.

Professors at Harvard initiated the change in courses because Harvard invented American legal curriculum in the 1880s, Armini said. Harvard professors began discussing their curriculum changes three years ago.

"We felt a special responsibility to reform curriculum today because we want Harvard to play a leadership role," Armini said.

Columbia Law School in New York City also changed its curriculum in 2003, after school officials realized academics were getting farther away from real-life training, said Elizabeth Schmalz, executive director of communications and public affairs at Columbia Law School.

Law students at Columbia now take a class in which they act out economic deals. The course provides students with a real-life example of being involved in transaction law. The school also added more electives to help students find out earlier what they are interested in, Schmalz said.

"Everybody seems to be on the same page," she said.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's 2007 report, "Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law," addressed law schools' current curriculums.

Many law students can graduate without working directly with clients, unlike medical schools where students receive hands-on experience, said Anne Colby, senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation and second co-author of the report.

"The emphasis on developing the complex skills of practice in real-life context should be better integrated in doctrine of thinking like a lawyer," Colby said.

The social purpose of the profession is not given much attention and public perception isn't as positive as it used to be, Colby said.

"The field is not held in such high esteem as it used to be," Colby said. "People's morale and sense of meaning has eroded."

The report has helped to stimulate conversation about legal practices and has helped many schools change their teaching strategies, she said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School added an international law elective last spring and instituted programs focusing on international law and family law, said Kevin Kelly, assistant dean at the UW-Madison's law school.

UW-Madison has one of the largest clinical programs in the country to help students work with real cases, he said.

While medical students work with live patients, they still have to learn cures in lecture halls, just as lawyers do, Kelly said.

"In law school, we have clinical programs, like a teaching hospital, where people can work and deal with live clients," Kelly said.

Clinics and internships at Marquette Law School have grown dramatically, said Thomas Hammer, associate professor of law and chairman of the curriculum committee. He said every year Marquette Law School places about 100 students in clinics or internships.

The school is constantly changing and updating its curriculum in ways to develop essential lawyer skills, Hammer said.

"With the advent of new technology, the Internet, increasing pluralism in American society and globalization of the world, we needed to adjust the classes we offer to prepare students to practice law in that world," Hammer said.

Students take an ethics course and address ethics in the context of other classes, he said.

Jesse Dill, a first year Marquette law student, said he is glad Marquette has an ethics requirement.

"As a lawyer, you have an incredible amount of power to not be appropriate in some circumstances that could have a terrible consequence on people's lives," Dill said. "It's one of those things that could easily be forgotten unless you're reminded."

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