Preparing Students for a 21st Century Law Practice

By Christian Nolan

Craig Boise speaking

Syracuse Law Dean delivers keynote address to Judicial Section

Craig M. Boise, dean and professor of law at the Syracuse University College of Law, predicts continued flat or declining law school enrollments across the country for the next decade.

“We’re now in the 126th month of the longest economic expansion in the history of the country, and yet fewer law grads are being hired now than were being hired in 2007,” said Boise. “Employment rates among recent graduating law classes are higher, but only because there are so many fewer law graduates than in previous years. If ten years of economic expansion can’t drive growth in enrollment, then it’s hard to imagine what will.”

The trend of declining and now flat law school enrollment began because of weakness in the legal job market that resulted from the 2007-2009 Great Recession. According to the American Bar Association, first-year law school enrollment across the country was just over 52,000 students in 2010. In 2019, just over 38,000 students were enrolled – a 27% drop.

Boise explained that undergraduate enrollments have now fallen for seven consecutive years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and in a few years that will be exacerbated by a 15 percent decline in the Northeast of the population of 18-year-olds.

“So even if the legal job market somehow defies gravity and improves dramatically, there will simply be fewer college graduates available to pursue a legal education,” said Boise.

Boise’s remarks came as he delivered the keynote speech at the New York State Bar Association’s Judicial Section luncheon Jan. 31 during Annual Meeting.

“The upshot” of all this data, according to Boise, is that law schools must “evolve” to attract different kinds of students going forward. For instance, last year Syracuse launched the nation’s first ABA-approved online JD program that combines live interactive class sessions with self-paced classes, in-person residencies in Syracuse, and externships.

Boise said these types of programs have the potential to address the rural lawyer crisis by allowing students to earn their law degrees from the communities in which they plan to practice and live. He said they have students from rural towns in Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin and Alaska.

Adapting the Law Curriculum
Another challenge law schools face today, Boise said, is adapting the law school curriculum to the future of law practice.

“Let me just say that I welcome the recent national interest in rethinking the bar exam,” said Boise. “The dominance of traditional bar subjects makes it difficult to expand our curriculum into current critical legal topics, including subjects like compliance, data privacy and cybersecurity, smart contracts and the blockchain, healthcare, the legal implications of climate change and others.

“In addition, courses in technology and the law will be absolutely essential,” continued Boise.  “Already, artificial intelligence is being applied to the tricky problem of flight risk, and arbitrations and settlements are on the rise, thanks in part to increased use of risk analysis and predictive analytics software.”

Boise said technology will not totally replace the need for human critical thinking, judgment, and decision-making but that it is already helping lawyers and judges work smarter, more efficiently, and more accurately.

At Syracuse, Boise said they are developing a number of new courses to prepare students for a 21st Century law practice including the collaboration with NYSBA last fall for a one-credit “Technology and the Law” course.

The class, developed closely with Mark Berman, chair of NYSBA’s Committee on Technology and the Legal Profession, provides students an understanding of the fundamentals of how technology impacts their practice, the legal system and legal ethics.

Boise said Syracuse’s innovations like its new technology classes, expanding externship program and online JD program “aren’t being developed in a vacuum.”

“Nor are those that are being developed and implemented by other New York law schools,” said Boise. “They are the result of consultation with lawyers on the front lines of practice. They are also inspired by changes we see implemented by you, the judges in our courts.”

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