Certificate program in “Sustainability”?

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Is this a sales tactic, or a legitimate specialization?  John Marshall is now offering a 25-credit certificate program in sustainability (basically not developing real estate like a jackass) – program details here, but summarized in the quote from an article in MarketWatch below:

The 25-credit sustainability certificate is an outgrowth of the overall sustainability initiative started in the 2009-2010 academic year by the law school’s Center for Real Estate Law, when courses in Historic Preservation Law, Natural Resources Law, Energy Law and Sustainability in Modern Real Estate Transactions were added to the curriculum.

The Center established the certificate program because “we saw the need for a more focused program of study in this area. We developed this certificate in response to increased demand from students and employers alike,” explained Professor Celeste Hammond, director of the Center.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” Hammond said. “Only a small number of lawyers will specialize in sustainability law, but most business or commercial real estate lawyers need to know about the implications and consequences that sustainability, the green building movement and climate change will have on the real estate industry.”

I’ll be among the first to say that we need developers who are aware of the long-term implications of their projects, and who aren’t in the business simply to make a quick buck.  I worked in commercial real estate law for many years, and developers are often too concerned about the immediate bottom line and aren’t made aware of the benefits of planning around issues of sustainability.  Sustainable projects work, but only if done correctly.

But is law school the place to learn this material?  I would suggest that it isn’t.  Law school is the place for the basics, as I have yet to see any course in law school whatsoever that has solid practical use or prepares the student to tackle such issues in the real world (except for perhaps a very good externship or clinic program for basic criminal matters, which can, if done well, produce grads who can hit the ground running, or at least without tripping and falling).  Law school courses cover the basics, and they don’t develop professional competence or even practical know-how.  They are notoriously theoretical in nature – even the “practical” courses taught by decent adjuncts – and at best, they alert the student to issues they may need to recognize once they get out and start practicing law.  But law schools don’t actually teach law – not the kind of law that clients expect lawyers to know, at least.  Any certificate program that purports to convey any level of specialization or expertise is stretching the truth at best.

A certificate program shown on a resume, especially a 25 credit certificate program (almost one year of law school), narrows the range of jobs such grads are competitive for.  It says that the student focused on real estate matters during school, and it makes it difficult for the student to convince many non real estate employers that the student will stick around for the long haul.  It puts all the student’s employment eggs in one basket – real estate – and if the jobs in town are criminal, domestic relations, immigration, corporate, personal injury etc., then would expertise in sustainability, gained at the expense of a diverse legal education, hurt more than help?  Looking at the “Proposed Schedule” for students following this certificate program, years 2 and 3 of law school omit many courses covered on the bar exam, and allow for little to no courses in other areas of law.  (Okay, so we all know by now that a bar prep course covers all the subjects tested on the bar exam from scratch because some people have missed one or two here and there, but missing perhaps six courses tested on the bar exam would make for a nightmare of a summer prior to taking the exam.)

But I agree with the premise of the certificate: these are important issues that grads should be aware of.  I take issue with the idea that a 25 credit certificate program is the best solution though.  But these issues would be best highlighted in a three-credit “advanced real estate law” class.  They are not entry-level legal topics, and they are best learned under the supervision of a practicing real estate attorney in the workplace while immersed in learning the craft of practicing real estate law, coupled with the most up-to-date CLE courses.

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