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Twas a time for change

Since the 1870s, Harvard Law School has used the case method approach to legal studies, citing decisions of appeals courts to teach core legal principles. This has become a model for most law schools, but today lawyers complain that some young graduates lack the creativity, strategy skills, and financial savvy to tackle the reality of law practice. So what should Harvard be teaching its students?

It's a common complaint by lawyers: Many law schools, with their century-old teaching methods, do not prepare graduates for the day-to-day realities of law practice.

''When a human being walks through a lawyer's door, they don't say, 'I have for you a tort problem,' " said Boston College Law School dean John H. Garvey. ''They say, 'I was walking to the office this morning and a car came by and knocked over this garbage can and it hit me and I fell off the sidewalk and I twisted an ankle and what are you doing to do about it?' So our students need to be able to translate their knowledge of these subject areas into real life, and we're all looking for the best way to do that."

Young lawyers often find that law practice is starkly different from law school, contributing to high attrition at many law firms, where one in five associates leaves every year, according to the National Association for Law Placement Foundation, a nonprofit research group. The cost to firms of associate attrition is substantial: more than $300,000 per departing lawyer in unrecoverable recruiting, training, and replacement costs, the group found.

Now, a key proposal in a review of the Harvard Law School curriculum would push students to take a more practical, problem-solving approach to the law beginning in their first year, in addition to studying fixed legal principles. The changes are meant in part to better prepare graduates for the modern legal world, where an understanding of balance sheets, marketing, and management, and the ability to think creatively and innovatively, can be as important as an academic grounding in the law.

Although Harvard's prominence means its changes will be watched closely, many other law schools are making similar moves. With more than half of all graduates going to work for private law firms, most law schools -- aware they must do more to prepare students to become entry-level practitioners -- now run clinics that teach skills training, offer classes in contemporary legal issues such as globalization and intellectual property, and draw connections between classroom theories and actual practice.

''We're trying very much to help students think how to practically solve problems rather than only solve problems the way academics would," said Harvard Law School professor Martha L. Minow, chairwoman of the curriculum review committee. ''In talking with many lawyers, it has been clear to us that we have the opportunity to help very, very smart and motivated students make better use of the time they're in school."

The introduction of a problem-solving approach would be a small but significant change to the Harvard teaching method, which has remained largely the same since the 1870s and is the model for most law schools nationwide. Known as the case method, it uses the decisions of appeals courts to teach students core legal principles. It does not expose students to trial courts cases, where legal conflicts are still taking form, and in which lawyers help shape the facts and outcome.

''The case method's claim to fame was that it taught people how to think like a lawyer in terms of critical analysis and understanding the way in which the judicial process resolves issues, but it falls pretty far short of actually training people to know how to be a lawyer," said Emily A. Spieler, dean of Northeastern University School of Law.

''A lot of lawyers do work in which they have to provide advice, work with managers directly, do legislative work, think of problems in a much more strategic and businesslike way, and a whole raft of things that reading appellate cases doesn't help you get at," Spieler said. ''So a move toward more problem-based teaching makes a lot of sense."

The work of Harvard's curriculum review committee, comprising eight faculty members appointed by Dean Elena Kagan shortly after Kagan came to Harvard in 2003, has been under way for two and a half years. Supplementing the case method with problem-solving teaching techniques is a ''major piece" of the committee's proposals, but not the only one, Minow said.

Minow declined to discuss the proposed changes in detail, saying it's too soon. But she said the committee has consulted with law firm partners, public sector lawyers, judges, legislators, nonprofit institutions, students, alumni, and faculty, as well as business, medical, and public policy schools. They were asked a straightforward question: What should Harvard Law School be teaching its students?

At a legal education conference at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville last month, Harvard Law School professor Todd D. Rakoff, a committee member, spoke of the ''antiquity" of the case method, which, he noted, was adopted ''not only before the Internet but before the telephone, not only before man went to the moon but before he went to the North Pole."

In an interview, Rakoff said Harvard was prompted to scrutinize its curriculum by ''our own sense that what we were doing was not as good as it could be."

''Over the course of their lifetimes a lot of these students are going to spend a lot of time in big law firms . . . so law schools ought to be aware that they're training people for practice," he added. ''If we get them to think of themselves as problem-solvers, that brings them closer to the realities of law practice."

Law firms and law schools alike acknowledge that some legal skills can only be learned on the job. But students who are more prepared for the modern practice of law could bring about healthy changes to the profession, Rakoff and others said.

''If law students come out as better problem-solvers, I don't know if it would lead to less attrition, but it would lead to better and more usefully trained lawyers," said Kitt Sawitsky, co-managing director of the Boston law firm Goulston & Storrs. ''And maybe the public would like them better, too."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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