It used to be that people went to law school to learn how to “think like a lawyer” and assumed they would learn how to practice on the job. But now law schools are under pressure to turn out practice-ready lawyers.
In a sluggish economy, jobs are scarce for new law graduates, who often are burdened with hefty student loans. Clients won’t pay to train first-year associates and firms say they can’t absorb the expense, especially with competition from contract lawyers and offshore legal services. And so law schools are in the hot seat.
The Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism organized a daylong conference at the State Bar of Georgia’s headquarters to explore ways law schools can turn out graduates with more practical legal skills.
“Schools have got to do something to radically change the delivery and outcome of legal education or applications will keep going down,” said Fred Rooney, a panelist at the Nov. 15 symposium who directs an incubator program for new law graduates at the CUNY School of Law.
Law schools are retooling their curriculums, adding more skills training through clinics, externships, courses with case simulations and the like, but one question that kept coming up at the conference was how feasible it is for a law school to teach a lawyer how to practice law.
Panelists from academia, nonprofits, government and the private bar offered a range of ideas: devoting the third-year curriculum to practical training, creating a two-track curriculum for either scholarship or professional skills, or dispensing with the third year altogether in favor of a supervised apprenticeship.
But the rough consensus that emerged was that one must actually practice law in order to learn how to practice law.
Washington & Lee University School of Law redesigned its third-year curriculum in 2008 to focus on practical skills developed through classroom simulations and clinical coursework.
James Moliterno, a W&L law professor, said the school made the curriculum optional for the first two years as it was phased in. “I figured the students would be scared of it,” he said, because their comfort zone was “sitting for a three-hour exam to get a grade.”
To his surprise, three quarters of the 3L class opted in the first year.
Each semester begins with a two-week immersion course, where students work fulltime on a litigation matter in the fall and a transactional matter in the spring. In the fall semester, students represent either a plaintiff or defendant in a simulated dispute and in the spring they represent the buyer and seller of a hypothetical furniture manufacturer.
The students then take two experiential courses per semester, said Moliterno, including an externship where they work with actual clients. There is also a one-credit service requirement and a practicum. “Every student represents a client before graduating,” he said.
Steven Kaminshine, the dean of Georgia State University College of Law, raised the larger question of whether a student can learn to practice law in an academic environment, no matter how experientially oriented.
“Yes, we can change the third year and change the pedagogy—but law school is still not going to be taught by members of the bar coming in on Thursday night,” Kaminshine said.
“We can innovate—add externships, clinics, skills labs, integrate more legal skills into the coursework,” he said, but “we are still nibbling around the edges of the problem.”
He said revising the coursework is not the same as having students go through a legal apprenticeship, which he compared to the role a residency plays for medical school graduates.
“The schizophrenia in legal education is palpable,” Kaminshine said.
Legal education is “confused about what it’s doing,” said Emory University Law School professor Frank Alexander, because it has two different missions—teaching legal scholarship and preparing people to practice law.
“The purpose of legal education is ambiguous and so we’re not preparing people to do either very well,” said Alexander, who directs Emory’s Project on Affordable Housing and Community Development and has served as interim dean of the law school.
He suggested that law schools offer two tracks—one for professional training, which would include field work after the first year, and a separate legal scholarship track leading to an LL.M. or Ph.D. degree in legal studies that “makes no pretense that it is preparing someone to pass the bar.”
The debate over legal education is not “a war between theory and practice,” said Thomas Morgan, a professor at George Washington University School of Law and a former dean of Emory’s law school.
“You can’t provide just a practical education without an academic base,” Morgan said. Pursuing the medical comparison, he said doctor training wouldn’t work if students merely followed doctors around without taking any classes.
“But when half our graduates can’t get jobs, what does a practice-ready lawyer look like?” Morgan asked.
Law school has a broader purpose than preparing lawyers to practice law, said the dean of the University of Georgia’s law school, Rebecca White.
“Sure, you need to know how to draft a complaint, interview a client and get to the courthouse,” White said. “But scholarship matters. We need to teach deep thinking. If students don’t get exposed to that in their first year of law school, they’re not going to get it later.
“Law school can’t provide practice-ready lawyers,” White said. “We can be part of the process, but we can’t do it alone.”
Alexander pointed out that there is institutional resistance to shifting away from scholarship to more practical teaching. Faculty salaries are a law school’s biggest expense, he said, and the bulk of spending on salaries goes to professors who have not represented a client in 10 years, if ever.
“If we are going to start a professional track, then we need to invest money and hire professors with experience practicing law,” he said.
Alexander hastened to add that he doesn’t think law professors should give up scholarship. “But we need to acknowledge our ambivalence about legal scholarship versus teaching people how to practice law.”
The notion of compressing law school to two years and adding an apprenticeship year was broached, but did not get much discussion.
C. Lash Harrison, the managing partner of Ford & Harrison, said he proposed to a law school dean, whom he did not name, that his firm could train several 3Ls, who would still pay law school tuition, but was met with little enthusiasm. “He did not jump up and down,” Harrison said.
“Finding practice-ready lawyers is about as hard as finding shovel-ready projects for economic development,” he said.
Harrison is not waiting for law schools to deliver these mythical creatures. His labor and employment firm started its own first-year associate training program in 2007. For their first year of employment, new associates work on cases and perform research without any billable hours requirement.
The program is hands-on, Harrison said. Initially it offered more classroom work, but he said that “was not very productive.”
“Our associates got more out of dealing with clients and real-life problems,” Harrison said, although participants do write a paper for a self-directed research project.
Ford & Harrison started the program as an associate retention effort at a time when competition for top law school graduates was fierce. Now many firms won’t hire first-year associates because clients won’t pay for them.
Harrison still prefers to train new lawyers from scratch, to avoid the risk of people coming in with bad habits. “Our experience is that associates who go through the program are going to advance much faster. I think they are more engaged and more committed to the practice of law,” he said.
The program is expensive, he acknowledged, but said it’s developing the firm’s next generation. He said about 70 percent of the 25 lawyers who’ve participated since 2007 are still at Ford & Harrison—and several of those who’ve left are working in-house for clients.
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