Q&A with Dean Michael Moffitt: Why law students shouldn’t be worried about law school
During the middle of the first day of orientation, Michael Moffitt, the dean of the University of Oregon Law School discussed the problems law schools across the country have been facing and how the UO plans to counter them. This has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Emerald: With the more negative reports coming out about law school, what was your reaction?
Michael Moffitt: It’s funny because a lot of these reports are coming out as though this were something that just happened last month, a brand new development. The reality is that the legal market and legal education have been going through a fundamental transformation for most of the last decade. There have been some more recent developments in the market that I think have pressed fast forward on some of those developments, but there is not a lot in any of the reports coming out that are news to anyone who’s business is education. Theses are things for which we have been preparing for years. We’re really well positioned as to some of the changes, and we’re like a lot of other law schools in others. So, it’s not a surprise; it’s a confirmation of the expectations that we’ve been having about some of these evolutions.
Do you get a lot of questions from parents and students about these things?
Less I think than the media reports might suggest. The reality is, students have always asked really good, hard questions about how they’re going to spend potentially three more years of their life. You should be asking hard questions. Oregon law attracts the kinds of students who are going to be well engaged in whatever it is they do … We attract students who want, frequently, to do creative entrepreneurial things, often in the public interest, defined broadly.@@Didn’t want to add any more quantifiers, did he?@@ That’s exactly the population that’s been asking these questions for a long time. And so, no I don’t. I haven’t experienced a difference this year as opposed to last year. It’s always been high; they always ask good questions about that.
What is your response to them?
One of the challenges that incoming law students face is they’re trying to guess what they’re going to want to do three years after they begin a transformational educational experience. That’s a lot of guesswork. What we have to do is work really hard with students not just as they’re coming in but during their time here to make sure that by the time they’re leaving, they’re prepared to begin their professional lives in whatever way they think is most appropriate for them. Most law students come in with a very clear picture of what it is they want to do when they graduate. Most law students, me included, are completely wrong. We’re well-intended, but we learn things along the way … That’s part of what the law school experience is. What we try not to do is force students into a track that depends on them being “right” when they were juniors in college, about what they’re going to do four or five years later. That’s just not the world that any of us lives in anymore. It might have been at one point, but the market’s shifting too quickly for that to make sense.
So, there are a handful of things that we have done this past year that are different to respond to the rapidly changing market, and some of the things we think students are going to need. The first is that our school has invested a lot more resources in its center for career planning and professional development. This is the only area of the law school in which we are investing more dollars in now. And we have completely revamped how it is that we deal with law students beginning right away, so that I believe we are the only law school in the country that has a four credit offering. It’s actually a requirement that they go through career planning and professional development planning from day one. It’s brand new for us. I firmly believe it’s the right thing for us.
The second thing that we are doing even more of is building on our long-standing tradition of creating graduates who are skilled, by engaging them in experiential learning and skills-based learning. We require every law student to take an upper-level skills building requirement, and then we make available a great number of out of classroom applied learning opportunities, clinics and externships. I think the most recent statistic is that 85 percent of our students graduate having done applied learning or an externship, that’s a really good percentage.
The third thing is we are putting a lot more energy into developing out alumni network, as an integral part not just of career placement but even of the education process. We’ve got Law Ducks all over the country … Everywhere I go, there are Oregon alumni that want to help law students. I’m not sure we’ve done as much as we should in engaging that community. But they are recognizing that now is the time to help, and they are stepping up to do it.
The fourth thing is that we have intentionally decreased the size of the incoming first-year class. We have shrunk the number of students who are joining us, this year by 20 percent. And we made that decision in part to maintain the quality of the class that we want and in part to make sure we can provide every student with the individualized, personalized educational experience that increasingly they’re going to need. Not all law schools have made that choice. It’s obvious we could make a lot more money by just admitting as many people as want to come, but we made the decision that that was not the right thing to do for our students or for our school.
The last of the things that we’re doing, more than in previous years, is that we are greatly increasing our outreach across campus. Taking advantage of the fact that we’re affiliated with a major research university. There are not a lot of law schools that have something like the university across Agate Street. That makes us better, it makes our students better, it makes the university better.
For those coming into their last year or recently graduated, what do you tell these students that are about to enter into this, grimmer workforce than expected?
Not to oversimplify, but the most important thing they can do at this stage is engage with the networks that we have set up. We have people who are among the best professionals in the country, working in our Center for Career Planning and Professional Development. Those professionals cannot do their job unless they work with the students closely. I’m trying to do everything I can to encourage our current students and our recent grads to connect with each other and connect with us. Law Ducks want to help law Ducks. Every week, I get inquiries from people saying ‘Hey do you know anybody in this-and-such a city who specializes in (this) because I’m looking for somebody to give some more work to do.’ I need to be able to take advantage of that by knowing who’s out there looking for what. So, part of the answer is engage, engage, engage.
Part of the answer is that continued education processes around what the possibilities are. There was a time in law school where there was a very narrow band in what people did with a J.D. and a very narrow set of ways in how one got that kind of a job. That’s just no longer the case. Part of what we need to do with our students and recent alums is to gather to figure out the broad array of things, of opportunities presented to people with legal training. That often requires a lot of reinvention.
There are a lot of people right now asking ‘Is it worth it to go to law school?’ How do you respond to that?
I am not someone who thinks everyone should go and get a J.D. I think that there are some people who would really be best served by taking a class or two, and that’s enough. I think that there are a lot of people who would be very well served to get the skills and the credentials that come along with a J.D., but unless I know a lot more about somebody, I can’t recommend for or against law school. It’s a lot of time and a lot of money. And depending on what you want to do with your life, that could be a great investment. Or that could be silly. It’s part of why we do such a thorough, whole-file review of every applicant. I’ve got no interest in admitting someone to this law school if they don’t want to be here. This isn’t right for them. I do think that law school is right for people, beyond just the obvious: If you want to be a lawyer, you have to go to law school. As I’ve been out visiting with alumni, some of the people who have been the most rabid supporters of the law school are entrepreneurs. They’re people who started their own businesses, or they’re people who got into lobbying, or they are elected officials, or they work in jobs that don’t actually require a J.D. — but they say ‘It was that legal training that made me good at what I was doing.’ So, it’s not just people that want to be a lawyer that should go to law school, but I don’t think it’s a smart move for people to say ‘Well, I don’t know. What else was I gonna do?’
What is it that you see in the University of Oregon Law School that really should be drawing students to this school.
I think that there are three things that set our law school apart. The first is the least quantifiable, but it is the people. The experience here is unlike any other law school. It won’t show up in a budget report, but this is a good place to be.
The second thing that I think makes this law school different from a lot is that we don’t try to be everything. But we do a handful of things better than almost anyone else in the country. There are only I think nine law schools in this country that have three or more top 10 ranked programs. What we do, we do very, very well.
The third thing that I think sets this law school apart is not only are we the only public law school in the state, but we are publicly-minded in a broad way that I think prepares students well for professional life in whatever area they want to get into. Lawyer-ing is a service profession, and we do a really good job of training people to see their role in society. That’s not the case of every law school.