Should law schools be required to ensure their students leave campus with some real-world legal training under their belts?
A State Bar of California task force thinks so. It has put forth a proposal under which new admittees to the bar would have to complete at least 15 units (about 25 percent of the typical course load) of practical-skills training during their last two years of law school, or complete a six-month, bar-approved clerkship or apprenticeship following law school. The proposal, which would be the first of its kind, appears to have wide support among top bar leaders, according to executive director Joseph Dunn.
The proposal is intended to spur law schools to expand practical-skills training — clinics, simulations, training in negotiation, project management and interviewing skills.
The proposal has received mixed reviews thus far from leaders at California law schools. A few have hailed the idea as overdue, but a larger group of deans questions the need for a state bar mandate when most schools are already beefing up practical training.
"Law school has changed a lot over the last 30 years. There is a tremendous amount of skills training that occurs in the modern legal curriculum, and this task force doesn’t seem to have recognized that," Santa Clara University School of Law dean Donald Polden said.
Stanford Law School shares the task force’s goal of improving practical-skills training, said ­spokeswoman Judith Romero, but not a mandate. "The state bar should identify the expertise and skills that it would like to see in its lawyers, but then it should let law schools develop a variety of opportunities for their students to accumulate that knowledge and expertise," she said. "The state bar is getting into the business of regulating the curriculum of law schools and this is not a good idea, because it will suppress innovation among the law schools."
Requiring a set number of practical-skills hours in law school could result in some unintended consequences if the bar narrowly defines what classes qualify, said Robert Rasmussen, dean of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Students could miss out on classes they want to take if they have to shoehorn a certain number of mandated courses into their schedule. "Students need some room to figure out what they want," he said.
Any new practical-skills training requirement would first undergo an extensive evaluation by the state bar staff, to determine how it would be implemented, Dunn said. Furthermore, the task force has proposed a phasing-in period for any such requirement that would begin in 2017.
University of California Hastings College of the Law dean Frank Wu is one of the few law school leaders to express his full support of the bar’s proposal.
"I think it’s important for law schools to recognize that we’re here to prepare service leaders, not philosophers and professors," he said. "We have to give students the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and apply their book learning to the real world, just as medical school does."