University At Buffalo Law School to Implement New Curriculum Designed to Help Graduates "Hit The Ground Running" Program Designed to Better Prepare Graduates For Legal Practice

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: August 8, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo School of Law this fall will implement a curriculum designed to counter the widespread concern that law schools are not adequately preparing their graduates to practice law.

The new, enriched curriculum, formulated after more than two years of meetings with various law-school constituency groups, is an attempt to prepare students "to work like lawyers, as well as think like lawyers, because both are important," says Dean Barry B. Boyer.

Although other law schools are beefing up various aspects of their curricula to address critics' concerns, the integrated approach of UB -- particularly its emphasis on varieties of writing and research and analysis -- is new among law schools, says Thomas Headrick, acting dean of the UB law school while Boyer is on sabbatical.

The goal of the new curriculum is to have graduates be able to research, understand and translate information into legal work products, such as divorce settlements, loan agreements and briefs, from "Day 1 on the job," rather than obtaining that kind of practical knowledge through the traditional avenue of mentoring relationships cultivated on-the-job, Boyer says.

The idea is to help graduates bridge the gap that historically has existed between law school and practice, decreasing the need for extensive on-the-job training.

As competition in the legal profession increases, and as the recession squeezes the amount of business available, the transition of law students to practice is tougher, Boyer notes.

Many graduates work in solo practices, or in small firms, or take work on a project-by-project basis, limiting mentoring relationships, he says. And even graduates working in large firms find there are fewer opportunities for mentoring.

"We want to do a better job of blending analytical skills and practical skills," he says.

The new curriculum will focus on smaller class sizes, a required portfolio of work accumulated throughout students' tenures, specialization in one area of law, individual self-study courses in which students use technology and guided readings to give themselves basic knowledge in areas in which they will not specialize, and short courses offered by specialists from the world of practice.

The school's first-year program will keep the core courses in property, contracts, torts, constitutional law, procedure and criminal law. However, students will have to take two year-long courses introducing the way lawyers work, what they do and how they do it. One of these will be an extended course in legal researching and writing. The other will work through client and policy problems using legal, social science and scientific knowledge and analysis.

The curriculum during the second and third years will change from one that was largely elective -- students were only required to take a basic tax course and one seminar to reinforce research and writing skills -- to one in which students may devote as much as half their time to a particular area of legal studies, such as corporate, the environment, family law or government law.

"This new curriculum will merge UB law school's current strengths in law and social science and clinical legal education and take the next large step in educating lawyers," says Headrick.

Students will use technology and carefully designed readings to teach themselves -- what school officials call "guided self-study" -- about other legal topics not within their specializations. This method, a more efficient way of delivering basic legal knowledge than the traditional survey class, will give students a "mental map" of other areas of legal knowledge to prepare for the bar, Boyer says. Equally important, this focus on "learning to learn" will build skills that practicing lawyers need when they're confronted with an unfamiliar area of law, he adds.

As part of the new curriculum, students will be required to develop a portfolio of work during their tenure. This portfolio will be reviewed by the beginning of students' third year by a faculty member who will look at students' strengths and weaknesses and recommend areas in which the student needs additional work. The collection of work could include such things as written reports and projects, and videos of oral presentations.

"This will give employers a fairly in-depth picture of what a student can do," says Headrick. "It will give a richer picture than the transcript. Employers will be able to see how a student has developed over time.

"The portfolio approach allows the faculty and outsiders to evaluate students, not just by counting up their grades, but also by appraising an actual body of work."