September 30, 2013

Poser: Law college 'ahead of curve'

University of Nebraska College of Law

Dean Susan Poser says the University of Nebraska College of Law is “ahead of the curve” when it comes to the recommendations for improving legal education made by an American Bar Association task force last month.

The Task Force on the Future of Legal Education was formed in Spring 2012 to address concerns about dwindling law school applications, rising student debt, and the inability of some law school graduates to land jobs that pay enough to cover student loans.

The 19-member panel, composed of lawyers, judges, academics and others, issued a draft report Sept. 20. The report called for greater innovation in law school curriculum, less reliance on tenured faculty to teach law, more emphasis on skill-building and career services, and “re-engineering” of cost structures to better distribute financial aid.

The current system of tuition discounts to attract the best students creates a system in which financial help goes to those who need it least. In effect, it steers young lawyers away from lower-paying jobs in underserved areas because they need higher salaries to repay their student loans.

Poser said the College has implemented at least a dozen initiatives in recent years to address the very issues raised by the task force.

“Innovation and access are two key areas where Nebraska is already strong,” said Poser, who noted that UNL’s comparatively low tuition puts it among the top 5 best value law schools in the country, according to National Jurist Magazine.

“This is part of our mission as a land-grant university,” Poser said.

One issue raised by the ABA Report was the need for more lawyers in rural America. This has been one of the = College’s main foci over the past several years.

To encourage more law students to embark upon careers in rural and small town Nebraska, the College has:

  • Established a concentration focused on solo and small-firm practice;

  • Hired faculty to teach rural economic development and energy law;

  • Worked with the Nebraska State Bar Association to provide the “Gap” program that teaches the nuts and bolts of law office management to new graduates and third-year students;

  • Expanded rural practice career services, inviting lawyers from outstate Nebraska to visit with students; and

  • Developed a student group for those interested in rural law.

Other innovations at the College of Law target Nebraska’s economic development and provide more career resources for students while they are still in law school.

For example, the college:

  • Now requires all first- year students to take a course in international law. Poser believes Nebraska is the only college of law in the Big Ten with such a requirement;

  • Redesigned the first-year legal writing class, now called Foundational Legal Skills, to include career-building activities. Among other things, students take the Gallup Strengths Finder Survey to determine what kind of legal career would best suit their strengths;

  • Boosted its externship program so that more students can get professional experience and academic credit by working at government and non-profit agencies while in law school;

  • Added a fourth clinic, one in which third year students provide legal services to entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurship clinic focuses on law relating to business transactions, rather than trial practice and litigation;

  • Expanded the intellectual property curriculum to include patent law, international patent law, and science & law, to help support Nebraska’s growing technology sector; and

  • Expanded the career services and the admissions offices to serve more students.

Poser now regularly meets with the law deans from the other Big Ten law schools to share ideas and develop initiatives. One of these initiatives, to share courses among the Big Ten law schools through distance technology, is currently being piloted by the University of Iowa and Ohio State University.