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Evolving Legal Education in Higher Education

Known for its traditional ways, legal education is transforming along with the rest of higher ed to deliver a more flexible and accessible education, breaking free from outdated models. 

Lawyers are known to be very traditional, and legal education didn’t differ much—until the pandemic hit. As the world evolves in reaction to it, it’s important for institutions to follow suit in delivering legal education. Gone are the days of professionals sitting in a room with a notepad. Instead, legal education is looking to pivot—along with the rest of the world—toward this remote and digital new normal. In this interview, Tricia CK Hoffler discusses how the legal landscape has changed, how the pandemic is reshaping how legal education is delivered and shares insights into what the future of this profession may look like. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have lawyers’ educational needs evolved over the past ten to 15 years?

Tricia CK Hoffler (TH): When I was in law school, there was no internet. In my last year, LexisNexis came into existence, and I remember everyone thinking it wasn’t going to work. We were used to doing things by hand, the good old-fashioned way. At that point, technology was seen as junk science. Lawyers now have greater access to information, resources and materials, so that we can service our clients better.

We also live in a global community. In the United States, we never should have had the luxury of assuming that everything that happens here remains here because we’ve always lived in a global economy. Our access to global resources is much broader because of technology, so that raises the bar because our duty is heightened when we have greater access to resources and information. We can access what any court is doing at any given time. For example, you can see court opinions that a judge may have ruled on last week, if you want to pay for that information. You can get both the best or the worst of everything, but you have unprecedented access to all of it.

Evo: How effectively have colleges and universities updated their legal education curricula to keep pace with changes in the profession?

TH: From a general standpoint, colleges and law schools have been pretty good. But once you’re practicing law, you rely on your Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit. And a lot of times, that credit is not administered through a law school but through an organization, a bar association. So, you’re not really looking back to make connections to your law school for continuing education unless it’s some stellar program or taught by your favorite professor—and you receive notice about it. Typically, we get our continuing legal education credit through other sources. And we certainly don’t go back to our colleges to update on what we need to do to remain informed, to remain educators, to remain current in our respective practice areas.

Evo: Do you think there’s space for law schools to become competitive for the professional education of practicing lawyers?

TH: Absolutely. I do a lot of continuing legal education seminars, webinars—now all through Zoom. And I don’t agree to serve on a CLE panel or to conduct a CLE in an area in which I don’t practice. That makes no sense to me because people are looking to me to give them expertise, to impart information onto them. For instance, I do a lot of work in trial, and I love doing it. Law schools could certainly put on those kinds of CLEs, trial advocacy programs, what every lawyer needs to know, refresher courses, all of those things. There’s a lot of room for law schools to take over that area. 

So, I do CLEs for various bar associations, whoever can reach me and get on my schedule. If it’s in my practice area, I’m going to do it because I love it. There’s no reason why law schools shouldn’t or can’t do that. They are an educational entity that we all know, that we may not love, but that we are happy we have. But some of the resources that they provide, they should provide to people who graduate. And that’s a way of building a pipeline.

Networking is so critical when you’re in law school, especially during the age of COVID-19, when job opportunities are very few and far between. If there is a mechanism for law schools to enable students to interface with practitioners, the more the better. They might get ideas of what they’d like to do. 

Evo: As it currently stands, is the extent of engagement between most practicing lawyers and their law schools requests for donation, and that’s about it?

TH: I think so. Honestly, that’s where I think law schools fall short. Because if they would provide opportunities for their graduates to come back, to participate meaningfully, to do things they like, they will give more money. So, there’s probably a connection between the amount of money that people are willing to give and their level of engagement with the institution. 

I served on the board of my law school, and during that time I was very engaged, but I’ve been off the board for ten years now and lost contact. Practitioners either don’t have or don’t make the time to give back and help younger students, which is unfortunate. But a way of engaging them to do so is simply connecting with them as often as possible. You can get busy people to do a lot in two hours, especially within a virtual format. It‘s an opportunity for students to see firsthand what a practitioner can and will do after graduating from their very school. 

Evo: What does the future of legal education look like?

TH: The future of education to me looks like less classroom time and more Zoom time. We’re living amidst a very scary and dangerous pandemic. The silver lining is that we’re learning to operate within it. In that, we’re changing the way that we practice law. We’re changing the way that we interface with our clients and courts. We’re changing the way that we socialize and communicate. I never could have envisioned having remote paraprofessionals working for me this time last year. I’m old-school. I want people to come into my office and meet with me in person. Pre COVID-19, I couldn’t imagine not doing that. In case meetings, I want everybody there with pen and pad, going over cases and sifting through files.

Now, I have three employees who are remote, working off-site, and I’m pretty comfortable with that. Where before I would have said that’s impossible because I don’t know if they’re doing my work, with no way to monitor it. Well now, you can monitor it. Plus, COVID-19 has taught us to be more trusting of our paraprofessionals, particularly those who’ve been working with us for a long time and have never given a reason not to trust them

So, the ways in which we interact with each other and manage our practices are going to be different going forward. We will probably be able to manage classes more in a virtual setting. And why wouldn’t we? That would enable people from all around the world to learn. Studies show that a lot of mothers, particularly those with infants, are more productive and happier if they are close to their young children. So, there could be some validity to the notion that people may give you more if they’re in a comfortable workplace.

Think about it: people who are not ambulatory, who are sick, women who in the final stages of a pregnancy. It enables schools to be more flexible. You can bring in more students and give them a rich experience. That’s how I see law schools evolving in the future, and I think it’s going to be for the best. We need to become more of a blended society to survive and thrive. We really do. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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