Law schools, since times of the legendary Harvard Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell, have concentrated first and foremost on analytical training of law students. Learning to “think like a lawyer” has been the core of every law school’s program, and until the last few decades when clinical education gained recognition, that analytical training has been nearly the sole focus of law school courses.
This has been a tremendous success, and should not be denigrated. Every lawyer in the U.S. has been trained to interpret and analyze legal authority in pretty much the same way. We may differ in skill and disagree on how to apply legal reasoning, but nearly all of us agree on what legal reasoning is.
While this is a tremendous achievement by law schools over the last century, it is not enough. For there are two other legs of the stool of preparation that a new lawyer needs to be able to perform responsibly for clients. One is practice skills. On this there is wide agreement and much ferment throughout the profession, and increasingly within law schools. We often hear a lament that law students graduate with a J.D. but without the ability to represent clients until they get further training in the skills of daily practice, from drafting pleadings to negotiating deals to interviewing clients. This is certainly true, and being addressed through the increasing emphasis on clinical education and other practice-based learning, such as externships and simulations.
But even this is not enough for law students to prepare for the profession. For there is a third leg of the stool of preparation that gets inadequate attention: the development of professional character. This largely missing element of legal education was highlighted in a landmark study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, released in 2007. Entitled “Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of the Law,” the study evaluated the approaches followed by law schools throughout the country and found that they generally failed to address this element of preparation for the practice of law.
New lawyers, especially in private practice, are often completely unready for the stresses that their jobs impose. They must learn appropriate norms of behavior toward both peers and senior colleagues, as well as support staff in their firms. They are confronted with the stress of dealing with opposing counsel who may (or may not) be taking advantage of the young lawyer’s inexperience. They have to know how to relate to clients, learning the nuances of communicating with respect while seeking information needed to do the client’s work. And to deal with the widely varied levels of sophistication and aggressiveness of their clients, a young lawyer must know how to adjust her style so as to elicit information and provide guidance on the law and strategy, while building the client’s confidence in her so that the attorney-client relationship can thrive.
These challenges can be an enormous source of stress for a young lawyer. And employers such as law firm partners are generally ill-equipped and too busy to provide the cultural training needed by young lawyers who are not prepared for them. Law schools owe a duty to their students to get them ready for the requirements of professional character just as much as with the analytical and practice skills that are more widely acknowledged as an element of a new lawyer’s training.•