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Ronald Weich: Leveling the wings of legal education

The Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board has analogized law schools to distressed airliners (“Legal education — stopping the graveyard spiral,” Feb. 7). While the metaphor is extreme, the current challenges in legal education are real. At the University of Baltimore School of Law, we take these concerns very seriously.

It is certainly true, as every practicing lawyer knows, that the legal profession is changing in ways that have affected the employment prospects of recent law school graduates. Some of those changes may be attributable to the economic downturn in recent years, but others are structural.

For example, technology has streamlined activities typically assigned to law firm associates, and new client billing arrangements have altered the economics of law firm hiring. Meanwhile, the budgets of many government agencies and nonprofit organizations are stretched thin. It is no wonder that would-be law students are wary of entering the profession when lucrative employment upon graduation is no longer a sure thing.

But law schools are still engaged in a fundamentally valid enterprise. Throughout our society, lawyers are needed to help people and institutions resolve disputes, tackle complex problems and advance the quality of life. There are many tasks lawyers perform that only properly trained and licensed lawyers can do, or do well. And in general, over the course of a career, lawyers earn a very good living doing those things. So legal education remains valuable — but it needs to stay relevant to contemporary legal practice.

I joined the University of Baltimore School of Law last summer, after 25 years of private practice and government service. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the faculty, the breadth of the curriculum and the school’s longstanding commitment to practical education. Our students learn to write and reason and advocate like lawyers in classrooms, nationally renowned clinics and community-based internships. We strive to provide students with the practical tools they need to succeed in the legal environment of the 21st century.

One feature of UB of which I am especially proud is its deep commitment to clinical education. Students enrolled in one of the school’s eight clinics assume significant responsibility for the cases and transactions of actual clients, under the close supervision of nationally acclaimed faculty. The Editorial Advisory Board proposes the development of courses that would involve a “soup-to-nuts simulation of real law practice.” Our clinic students are, in fact, engaged in real law practice and licensed to do so under Rule 16 of the Rules Governing Admission to the Bar of Maryland.

As a new dean, I was also impressed by the school’s extraordinary relationship with the Maryland legal community. Practicing lawyers and judges throughout the region — some of whom are UB alumni but many of whom are not — teach and mentor our students as adjunct professors, moot court coaches, internship supervisors, career counselors and eventually employers. This professional network extends our campus into the community and leaves UB better positioned than many of our sister schools around the country to navigate a turbulent legal market. We are committed to building upon these strong ties and forging new partnerships throughout the region that will benefit our students and the wider community.

But we are not at all resting on our laurels. Our faculty is hard at work developing innovative approaches to sharpen the curriculum. We are exploring ways to incorporate more supervised legal writing and advocacy training throughout the curriculum. We also intend to enhance legal internship opportunities and tailor them to specific practice areas. Above all, we want to make sure that the education we provide is fully relevant to contemporary legal practice and the current legal market.

So at UB, we are not confronting a “death spiral.” In fact, we’re about to celebrate a birth: This spring, the law school will move into a new, state-of-the-art building that symbolizes our desire to embrace the rapidly changing world of law — and to enrich the community of which we are a part. Everyone who has driven up Charles Street or gotten off a train at Penn Station knows this building is something special. The UB faculty and I are fully committed to delivering a legal education that is as contemporary and exciting as the building in which it will be delivered.

Ronald Weich is dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law.