Legal education is in a period of profound and much-needed change. That was the unanimous assessment of a group of experts at FutureEd2, a major conference at Harvard Law School that attracted more than 150 legal educators, practitioners, businesspeople and students from around the world.

Yet how, exactly, law schools will be different in five or 20 years is less clear, although there are many suggested paths, ranging from a greater emphasis on global education to more practical training for budding lawyers. And, at the same time, there are strong voices urging law schools to maintain what’s best about traditional legal education even as they undergo reform.

“The overarching theme was that this was really an important moment, and there’s a growing realization that legal education really needs to change in important ways,” said David Wilkins, the faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, which hosted the conference, the second in a three-part series co-sponsored with New York Law School to explore the current state of legal education and help shape its future.

Convening experts from around the world provided the opportunity to gather examples of reforms and innovations, as well as solicit recommendations for reform. “A number of things are already going on in law schools around the country,” said Wilkins, “ innovations around distance learning, around collaborations with other professionals, around accelerated legal education. There are a lot of things already going on that are quite exciting.”

Some participants chose to submit proposals for improving legal education, ranging from more distance learning to more experiential learning in various forms. Of the 30 proposals, about five or six will be highlighted at the final conference in the series, which will be held next April at New York Law School. But, as HLS Dean Martha Minow urged during an address to the group, law schools should not abandon what they do so well: “Sharp analysis, teaching people to think hard through a problem by taking it apart, questioning assumptions, tracing consequences of potential avenues of response—these are the hallmarks of legal education.”

One theme, widely voiced by participants from many countries, is the need to provide even better practical training for new lawyers through clinical legal courses, apprenticeships, and other means. Leveraging new technologies to improve legal education and to support lawyers was also highlighted. A discussion moderated by Ashish Nanda, the Robert Braucher Professor of Practice at HLS, featured Jules Dienstag, Dean for Medical Education at the Harvard Medical School, and Rakesh Khurana, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School, among others, who suggested ways that law schools could learn from their fields.

Driving much of the conference agenda was the rapid globalization of economic and government relationships, as panelists from law schools in India, China, Brazil, France, Japan, and other countries discussed how to best educate lawyers for an increasingly interconnected and interdependent international environment. Birte Gall, director of the International Exchange Program at Bucerius Law School in Germany, noted that her school requires students to spend a semester studying abroad, in order to understand the law of a different jurisdiction, develop personally by living in a foreign culture, and begin buildiing an international network of colleagues.

American Bar Association President Stephen Zack said that the global economy is of growing interest to lawyers in the U.S., including those in small firms. International law is ranked higher in importance each year in the ABA’s bi-annual Pulse report, which asks U.S. lawyers to rank their professional priorities, Zack said. “Ten years ago, a solo [practitioner] in Iowa could not get a piece of the international piece,” he said, but this is no longer true, due to new technology that levels the playing field between big- and small-firm lawyers, as well as the growing presence of multinational companies even in rural areas.

Wilkins agreed: “It’s a mistake to think of globalization as only being confined to certain parts of the profession. If you look at our economy generally, how many people thought globalization had nothing to do with them before current financial crisis? Anyone who shops at Walmart realizes globalization has a tremendous effect on them, and it’s only going to increase.”

Yet in a time of scarce resources – for schools and for students — is it practical to insist on globally focused training and courses in comparative law, especially for future lawyers who plan to hang out a shingle in a small town? “You could have different kinds of law schools that cost different amounts for different ends,” suggested Sophia Sperdakos, policy counsel at the Law Society of Upper Canada, the governing body of lawyers and paralegals in Ontario.

But Todd Rakoff ’75, the HLS Byrne Professor of Administrative Law and a key architect of the recent curricular reforms at HLS, warned against reducing budgets at the expense of quality education. “What you don’t want is to cut costs [through] the proliferation of poorly supervised externships,” he advised.

Other topics included the problem of retaining women in the legal profession, especially women of color; “cradle to grave” professional development, and Harvard Law School’s new model for a public service venture fund to support the launches of new public service careers in new ways and to encourage students to begin thinking about legal their careers in more entrepreneurial ways.

The United Kingdom’s decision to allow stockholders to purchase shares in law firms was highlighted by keynote speaker Chris Kenny, CEO of the U.K. Legal Services Board, which oversees the regulation of lawyers in England and Wales. Kenny noted that law schools are today educating people “for a world of collapsing borders and globalized markets,” with not only geographical borders falling away but also those between lawyers and other professional service providers, and between academic and clinical teaching. No matter how educational models are restructured, law schools must continue to emphasize ethics as the cornerstone of the profession, he urged.

Since American legal education is still widely regarded abroad as the best, other nations are looking to the U.S. to lead the way in legal education reform. “There are so many things to reform — the curriculum, the structure of law schools, the genesis of legal education institutions – that we need the help of foreign law schools and foreign legal educators,” said Zhang Qi, a law professor at Peking University Law School who has been involved for years in Chinese judicial reform, and currently is a Fulbright visiting scholar of East Asian studies at Harvard Law School.

Many foreign law schools are seeking accreditation from the American Bar Association, a proposal that the ABA is considering. ABA President Zack—one of four ABA officers attending FutureEd2—asked panelists to explain why ABA accreditation was so important to them.

“The U.S. as a country, and its legal system, are profoundly influential around the world,” responded C. Raj Kumar, who spearheaded the effort to establish India’s first global law school, the Jindal Global Law School, and serves as its dean. “There is also great interest among lawyers around the world to measure up to the kind of ‘best standards’ that the legal profession has been fostering in the U.S.” Kumar added that it is important for the ABA to send the “right signal” to lawyers and governments around the world that the U.S. is not engaging in protectionism with regard to legal services.

Wilkins said the conference exceeded his expectations on many fronts, including the high level of engagement among the participants.

“I can’t claim to know what it was like when Christopher Columbus Langdell was operating, and maybe it felt like this at the beginning of the clinical legal education movement or other big changes,” said Wilkins, “but there is a willingness now to re-examine what’s happening in law schools in relation to tremendous changes in legal practice around the world, in a way I’ve never seen before.”