Prepping law students to be practice-ready when they graduate isn’t necessarily a matter of balancing practical experiences with traditional classroom instruction, in Peggy Maisel’s opinion. Instead, what works best is fusing the two strategies.
“A big piece is, ‘How do you integrate the two so that in every course, students are learning to be lawyers and to be real problem-solvers in whatever career they decide to embrace,’” said Maisel, who was recently appointed the associate dean for experiential education at Boston University School of Law. “Too often, people are thinking, ‘We’ve had this type of curriculum in law schools that has taught our students to think like lawyers and now we’re going to experiential, and that there’s something different.’”
Maisel has been director of Florida International University College of Law’s clinical education program, which she founded, since 2003. She was previously an associate professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, a trial attorney for the Consumer Product Safety Commission and executive director of the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center.
She joins the BU faculty July 1 as law schools nationwide grapple with sliding enrollment following a recession that trimmed high-paying entry-level jobs at large law firms and prompted many employers to insist that the law school graduates they hire be ready to work when they start rather than using their first months on the job to prepare for and pass state bar exams.
“What I see from the law students that I teach is that those who have had clinical experience really seem to have some advantage in the law market no matter what type of firm they go into or what type of legal job, because they’ve learned a lot about professionalism, because they’ve grown in self-confidence, because they’ve developed some lawyering skills, and all of these they can talk about when they go in for a job interview,” Maisel said in a telephone interview in late May. “In terms of the curriculum, it puts students who don’t have those experiences at a competitive disadvantage.”
Florida International’s law school had almost 500 students in the 2013-14 academic year, and about 40 percent of second- and third-year students participated in clinical courses, according to data compiled by Lawdragon. In the same period, BU Law had an enrollment of about 680, with almost 60 percent of 2Ls and 3Ls in clinical courses.
LD: How do you see law curriculums changing to meet new employer demands?
PM: The major way that I think the first-year curriculum is being changed to be more experiential is either through short courses co-taught often by both experiential clinical faculty and nonclinical faculty, and through first-year faculty members being interested and open and trying to learn how, or thinking about how, to introduce more experiential activities into their courses.
The basis for all of this is that for every course, faculty really need to think about what are the learning goals for their students, what do we want students to have learned by the end of this course and then figure out what is the best curriculum, what are the best teaching activities, to get there. That can be a combination of reading cases and the case-study method and experiential methods all in one course. I think there are lots of opportunities to do that in the first year as well as the other years.
LD: What drew you into legal academia?
PM: There were still not that many women in the legal profession, and I really wanted a way of empowering myself, I think. I thought that law would be something in which I’d be interested in a good way, and I saw it as a way of personally being able to do many different things but being more credible, having had that education. I saw it as a means of social change – I saw a lot of problems in society, and I was really motivated by social justice and wanting to have a better world.
I also was very interested in education: My father had been a professor. So I enjoyed whatever small teaching experiences I’d had. That wasn’t my goal originally, and really, what drew me into academia was the start of clinical legal education. My first teaching experience was at Antioch Law School, as a clinical fellow. So I started on a clinical teaching career quite early.
LD: What distinguishes Boston University’s clinical education program from others?
PM: In terms of the law clinics, they’re coming up to their 50-year anniversary. BU was really among the early schools in developing and giving law students the chance to participate in an actual clinical experience where they represented clients. BU has very strong law clinics in civil law — clinics where students get the chance to represent clients in civil cases — and also a very strong criminal law clinical program, which many law schools don’t have as well-developed. The school has students participating in law clinics where they can learn how to be prosecutors as well as defense attorneys. It also has a strong international program. The other thing that I’d say is a real strength is that BU has developed an outstanding transactional program, and that program at this point is simulation-based.”
LD: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing legal education today?
PM: Developing a curriculum that really responds to the changing legal environment and being very clear within that curriculum about what are the goals of each course. Because I think students can be overwhelmed sometimes by courses, making sure that there’s good guidance for them, so that they are clear about what they can learn from different courses and really get assistance in putting together a program that works for them in terms of the type of career they are developing.
It’s two-fold: Making sure that law schools have curriculums that are responsive to changing legal environments and preparing students to have the skills to work with what’s going to continue to be fast-paced technological change and with all the different changes in society that are reflected in law practice. It’s also preparing students who are professional, who are flexible and entrepreneurial and have very, very good problem-solving skills, because that’s what people are looking for.
LD: What trends are you seeing in the jobs for recent law school graduates?
PM: Over the last year, the hiring situation is getting better. Still, I see an awful lot of recent grads trying to get any sort of legal experience, not necessarily in the job they most want, but one that will make them employable and able to move laterally at a later date. I think students are still faced with a lot of debt, some of them, and are just concerned about getting employed in the best position they can where they’re going to be able to learn and move into a second job that may be more their ideal job. I’ve also seen more students starting their own practices or going into small practices.
LD: What do you do when you’re not working?
PM: I love music, and I play the guitar and sing. I also love spending time with my family and traveling. I actually just came back from Amman, Jordan, where I was working on starting a law clinic.
Contact James Langford at 646-722-2624 or firstname.lastname@example.org.