Detroit Mercy Putting Top Law Schools to Shame, Following MBA Model

I have been known to criticize law schools for being far less adaptable to changing markets and real world needs, and being generally less self-critical, than business schools are (see here, here, and here). Law school curricula have remained mostly static for a long, long time, and of course the law schools' cartel status* means they don't have to innovate as much as graduate programs that have to make the case for their value proposition year in and year out.

That's why I love this article in today's WSJ about Detroit Mercy Law School. It's not a "top law school" by anyone's definition, and yet their forward-looking and creative dean has plowed ahead with an initiative to place its graduates at top law firms. That's quite an accomplishment. And what a brilliant and novel concept: teach students how to practice law and enlist a powerful network to help spread the word. Most of the top (and not-so-top) law schools are above that. They sniff at practical education and like to pretend that law isn't a trade, so every year they churn out graduates who arrive at fancy law firms knowing less about real-world legal practice than their paralegals and often even their secretaries. (See Cameron Stracher, one of my favorite commentators on this subject, here and here.)

From the article:

In the stratified world of law, educational pedigree largely dictates where students will get a look. Firms want to signal to clients and colleagues that they only hire the best. As firms have grown and competition for junior lawyers has intensified, some firms have dipped below the Ivies and their equivalents. Nonetheless, a student from a school like Detroit Mercy -- firmly in the cellar of U.S. News & World Report's rankings of 184 accredited law schools -- hasn't stood a chance at the fancy firms.

But thanks to some masterful marketing by Detroit Mercy's dean, Mark C. Gordon, top students at the school are now gaining entree to the big leagues. In the last two years, a half-dozen students have been hired for summer or full-time jobs at firms like Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw LLP. Firms such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP now include Detroit Mercy in their select on-campus interview circuit.

A first-time dean and Harvard Law grad, Mr. Gordon got his school on the radar of the top-tier firms by enlisting a stable of big-time private-practice lawyers to join an advisory board that's now some 60 members strong. His pitch: Help Detroit Mercy improve its third-year curriculum by creating a required set of courses that simulate real-life practice.

Attorneys quickly suited up for the cause. When they arrived in Detroit for twice-a-year meetings, starting in 2005, Mr. Gordon made sure they not only helped remake the school's coursework but also inspected his top second-year students during private interviews, as well as others who were trotted out to give presentations on everything from trial advocacy to interpreting statutes. After last month's meeting, about 40 first-year students, handpicked by professors, were allowed to mingle with the board.

The idea of focusing the curriculum on practice resonated with the lawyers. In fact, many have long complained that law school devotes too much attention to theory and leaves students unprepared to practice, even as the market demands that firms pay new hires high salaries from day one. Many students are also no fans of the third year of school, feeling it's a repeat of the same kind of work analyzing cases that they did in the first two years.

Students "arrive and they don't know where they fit in, how to draft an escrow, a merger agreement," says Jonathan J. Lerner, a corporate partner at Skadden Arps who is on the Detroit Mercy board.

While some schools, like Columbia Law School, have coursework oriented to law-firm practice, it's generally not required. Stanford Law School offers a few elective "deals"-type courses, but the school is emphasizing new joint J.D.-master's degrees in which a law student, for example, would also study bioengineering. Transaction-simulation classes are an "inefficient way to learn content" says Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, who recommends students take no more than one or two of them.

From Mr. Gordon's vantage point, if the practical coursework and advisory board help his students get a top job, it's fine with him.

Good for Detroit Mercy, good for its graduates, and good for the firms who hire them.

* You can't practice law in this country without having attended an ABA-approved law school. In contrast, although there are industries that impose a de facto and only mildly permeable glass ceiling on people without an MBA (investment banking, fancypants consulting), in general the business world is open to anyone with smarts and ambition. No fancy, expensive degree is mandated by law, and only the free market determines whether companies will reward or require an MBA.