Last spring, Bruno Bich — chairman of Bic, the maker of pens and disposable razors — spoke for the first time in front of a class of law students at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law.
Bich, whose father founded the Clichy, France-based company using the family name after dropping the “H,” is not a lawyer. His decades of experience are on the corporate side, building the company’s U.S. marketing and sales teams. But what he brings to the new course at Catholic is what a growing number of law schools are adding to their curricula to better prepare future attorneys for a changing job market: insight from business leaders on how to get a foot in, and perhaps one day run, an in-house legal department.
This past spring marked the first time major Washington area law schools — Catholic and Georgetown are the first two — began offering formal courses designed to train students on how to practice law in a corporate setting, which can vary drastically from practicing at a law firm.
At Catholic University, general counsels of nonprofits and corporations such as Bic are brought in as guest lecturers, and students are required to write contracts and prepare a presentation before a board of directors. It is part of a larger movement by area law schools to adapt to changes in the legal industry that are shifting job prospects for both fresh graduates and longtime lawyers.
Law firms have been the traditional first job for attorneys, but during the recession, most large firms dramatically reduced the number of young associates they hired as work slowed.
Companies also sought to reduce their legal bills by doing more work in-house, putting the demand for corporate counsel on an “upward trajectory,” said professor Stephen Goldman, who co-manages the course at Catholic University.
Indeed, last year, Bic even made what is considered a somewhat unusual hire — a lawyer straight out of law school.
“The legal job market has been impacted in a very significant way,” said Veryl Miles, dean of Catholic University’s law school. “Many business enterprises have decreased their reliance on outside counsel for legal services and brought more of their legal needs in-house, resulting in more opportunities in this area of practice. Educating students for the unique aspects of this practice will give them a leg up in this job market.”
More law schools are following suit: American University’s Washington College of Law is developing an in-house lawyering course for the 2012-13 academic year that is to address law firm management, business and legal regulatory compliance and other issues confronting in-house counsel as “part of our effort to increase opportunities for our students to gain practical skills,” said Franki Fitterer, spokesman for the law school.
And Dean Paul Schiff Berman of George Washington University Law School is meeting with general counsels at several large and small companies to develop in-house courses the school hopes to offer as soon as fall 2013.
Some small and mid-size companies who don’t have general counsels are indicating they would be willing to consider hiring new graduates to join the company, said GW law school spokeswoman Claire Duggan.
The changes in legal education are coming at a time when fewer students are pursuing law degrees, in part because the costs are so high and the job opportunities are more scarce.
The number of people taking the Law School Admission Test saw its steepest drop in more than a decade — down 16 percent in 2011-12 compared with the previous academic year. And enrollment is declining at many law schools around the country, including several in D.C. Comparing fall 2011 to fall 2007, law school enrollment is down 15 percent at Catholic, 10 percent at George Mason University and 6 percent at George Washington, according enrollment data collected by the schools.
The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, is being pressured to hold schools more accountable for how their students do after graduation. Critics wants the association to regulate the reporting process more closely. Last year, two attorneys in New York sued 12 law schools (none of which are in the Washington area), accusing them of misleading prospective students by advertising that a high percentage of graduates found jobs. They announced plans to target 20 more law schools for similar lawsuits, and the law schools at Catholic and American could be among them.