The phrase "practice ready" is something of a misnomer. It was popularized by The New York Times in late 2011 in a feature about law firms teaching law graduates how to practice law because law schools give it short shrift. The Times borrowed the phrase from the American Bar Association’s resolution about legal education, adopted that summer. Since then, the phrase has made dozens of appearances online and in print.

Interestingly, the very sentence in the ABA’s three-paragraph, 105-word resolution containing the now-famous phrase actually defined "practice ready" based on a concept of client. But much of the client part of it all seems to have fallen by the wayside in the rush to point fingers at the demons or angels of law school curriculum committees. The sentence, which is also the whole of the second paragraph, reads: "FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges legal education providers to implement curricular programs intended to develop practice ready lawyers including, but not limited to enhanced capstone and clinical courses that include client meetings and court appearances."

Because there is no comma after "capstone," the final clause — the emphasis moment in the sentence — modifies everything that comes before it. The plea for client meetings extends to at least two different types of courses — clinical and capstone — and may even reach as far back in the sentence as "curricular programs." Yet, to date, the "practice ready" discussions have left out the concept of clients. That is disquieting — or at least surprising — for a discipline priding itself on precise language.

Clients are certainly at the heart of clinical courses. Most law schools have clinics, though many are too small to guarantee each student a seat, much less more than one seat. Any fault for that belongs to the ABA itself for peculiarly omitting from law school accreditation standards a mandatory live-client experience (or two or 20) for each student. A capstone course model marries doctrinal teaching to active simulations in lieu of lectures, and may or may not feature client relations. Washington and Lee University School of Law’s inventive and admissions-friendly capstone courses appear to include client-centeredness at least some of the time.

Undoubtedly, the limits on clinic seats led the ABA to write into the resolution a call for additional client contact outside the clinical setting. And it is here, in the nonclinical experiential courses, that law schools need to turn some client-centered attention, because it is in those courses that most of the curriculum takes place. What lawyers and the public actually want from law graduates is a sense of how to work with clients. Lawyers are paid to counsel clients and to advocate for their clients, whether they are people, companies, governments or nonprofits. As FMC Technologies Inc.’s general counsel, Jeffrey W. Carr, said in the 2011 New York Times article, "The fundamental issue is that law schools are not capable of producing people who are capable of being counselors."

Learning the judgment needed to counsel or advocate requires students to engage with the nuances of a client’s situation: the needs and goals in the legal matter at hand. To understand the situation, law students must grapple with the messy process of finding and understanding the facts. Otherwise, law graduates are left questioning the utility of something as elementary as using narrative structure for legal argument. Even the act of telling a story becomes foreign by graduation. Professor Ken Chestek of the University of Wyoming College of Law, in 2010, published a study of the persuasive effect of story in legal briefs, and was startled to discover that the only practitioners who were unsure of the persuasive effect of storytelling for a client were those who had just graduated from law school.

What the ABA has called for, in other words, is somewhat different from teaching isolated and visible performance or writing skills. Skills courses will remain hollow until the professors fill them with real or real-seeming clients. Simulations will never substitute for live client contact, but they can certainly be infused with vivid detail that will allow students to work through the nature of clients.

A client-centered approach to nonclinical courses is starting to gain traction. A handful of conferences on the topic are gaining an audience. The Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law’s initial conference saw an attendance of more than 240. The biennial Applied Legal Storytelling conferences have focused attention on teaching narrative approaches to client advocacy. But those conferences involve individual professors who hail from different law schools.

The time has come for entire law school faculties to move the focus of nonclinical experiential courses toward the notion of client. True curricular reform will begin when law schools, consistent with the ABA’s call, choreograph a curriculum that is constructed around client-centeredness.

Ruth Anne Robbins is clinical professor of law and director of lawyering programs at Rutgers School of Law – Camden.